There’s good reason to fear Iran’s global reach
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There’s good reason to fear Iran’s global reach

Teheran’s capabilities and actions suggest it will continue to pose regional and global security challenges for the forseeable future

Illustrative. Sayyad-3 air defense missiles during inauguration of its production line at an undisclosed location, Iran, according to official information released, July 22, 2017. (Official website of the Iranian Defense Ministry via AP)
Illustrative. Sayyad-3 air defense missiles during inauguration of its production line at an undisclosed location, Iran, according to official information released, July 22, 2017. (Official website of the Iranian Defense Ministry via AP)

As the international community marks the 38th anniversary of the Ayatollah’s rise of revolutionary regime, the persistent key question is whether Iran’s regional and global security challenges — ranging from terrorism to nuclear ambitions — will continue to persist for the remainder of the 21st century. Make no mistake. The short answer is potentially yes if the current unfolding Teheran’s intentions, capabilities, and actions are any guidance.

More specifically, on January 13, just two days after an Israeli Air Force strike on Iranian weapon depots at the Damascus airport, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took the rare step of acknowledging “hundreds” of attacks in Syria on Iranian targets and weapons convoys over the years. Netanyahu dropped a long-standing policy of ambiguity. Earlier, former chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot had hinted in an interview that Israel had attacked “thousands” of targets in Syria over the past few years.

This revelation by Netanyahu and Eisenkot’s subsequent acknowledgment of supplying weaponry to Syrian rebels during the civil war in Syria are part of IDF being more vocal about its activities against the Iranian and Syrian regimes and in explaining the disappearance of Iranian missile factories from Syria and of weapons transports in the area.

Following another IDF attack on an airport south of Damascus in the afternoon of Sunday, January 20, a ground-to-ground missile fired from Syria toward the Golan Heights was intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome system. Israel responded early the following morning with an attack on Iranian and Syrian military targets and Syrian air defense systems. A day after this clash, Israel successfully tested the advanced Arrow-3 anti-ballistic missile system under development with the US. Russia, calling the Israeli air strikes “arbitrary,” demanded that Israel to stop the attack.

Clearly, Iran has the intention of operating out of Syria as the center of its arms trade. It seeks a permanent military presence with the intention to establish a land corridor through Iraq and Syria to the sea. Whether Israel can successfully block the ambitions of Gen. Qasem Soleimani and the Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force remains to be seen. Will US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal of American troops from Syria enhance Iran’s influence as an ally of Assad against opposition groups and the Islamic State and a supplier of oil to Russia?

Apparently, there is no hiatus, as Iran seeks to project its influence in the world. Iran does this while staying atop the US State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism by way of its terrorist proxies, Hezbollah, the Islamic Jihad, and Hamas. In Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Africa, Latin America, and Asia, Iran continues to implement its strategies by various means directly through arms transfers and through drug trafficking by its Hezbollah proxy.

Iran plays a key role as a weapons supplier to the Houthi rebels in Yemen in their ongoing confrontation with Saudi Arabia. The Quds Force is reported to have supplied the Houthis with AK-47s, rocket propelled grenades, surface-to-air missiles, drones and C-4 explosives. Arms from Iran are smuggled into the country through the rebel-held port of Hudaydah on the Red Sea, to the west, and across the border with Iran-friendly Oman to the northeast. These are used in attacks across the Yemeni border into Saudi Arabia.

Iran has supported the Houthi terrorist group in its takeover of the northern part of the country including the capital Sana. In the ongoing civil war that began in 2015, the Saudi-led coalition’s effort to dislodge the Houthis has shown little success in countering Houthi advances, while Saudi air bombings have left thousands of civilian casualties and ground operations have led to widespread famine due largely to the collapse of the economy and affecting millions of civilians.

Additionally, last August, in the Gulf of Aden off the southern coast of Yemen, the US Navy seized a shipment of some 2,500 AK-47s suspected of coming from Somalia through a pipeline of stockpiled weapons manufactured in Iran. Iran has been suspected of repeatedly violating a series of international sanctions prohibiting arms exports in support of proxy forces. For years, Iran has worked with Eritrea to smuggle weapons to Somalia, and Eritrea’s recent accord with Ethiopia opens new opportunities for extending Iranian influence.

To proxies in Iraq, Iran is reported to have supplied short and medium-range ballistic missiles — Zelzal, Fateh-110 and Zulfiqar — to its Shiite proxies there along with the capacity to build more. The Zulfiqar has a range of 750 kilometers (466 miles), within striking distance of Tel Aviv.

Moreover, Iran has an ongoing presence in Latin America for decades. A billion dollar per year Hezbollah cocaine and arms trafficking operation in Latin America and the United States that was uncovered by the US Drug Enforcement Agency also involved arms trafficking and money laundering, specifically through Venezuela and Mexico, with the money collected by Hezbollah going directly toward its military activities in the Middle East.

In Venezuela, Tareck El Aissami, the minister of Industries and National Production in the government of President Nicolas Maduro, is suspected of being part of Venezuela’s drug-trafficking network and has ties to Iran and the proxy Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah. A Hezbollah support group has long existed in Venezuela, with cells dating to the mid-1990s and an enclave of drug traffickers and Hezbollah as well as other Islamist extremists off the coast on Margarita Island.

Iran’s ambition also reaches to the Far East. Despite continuous global effort to isolate North Korea and halt its nuclear development, Iran and North Korea’s military collaboration has persisted. The similarity between Iran’s Ghadir-class submarines and North Korea’s Yono class miniature submarines signals a possible tie between Iranian and North Korean militaries.

To be sure, Iran must be brought into a realization of the need to curb its hegemonic intention. Whether the withdrawal of the US from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (the JCPOA) in May 2018 with the re-imposition of US sanctions last November will modify the behavior of Iran remains to be seen, as it deals with the growing impact on its economy. The Iranian economy is prospected to contract by 3.6 percent in 2019 with the re-imposition of the US economic sanctions, while its daily oil export has already dropped from 2.7 million barrels to 1.7-1.9 million barrels by September 2018. Would negotiations and compromise suffice? This may not be the time for that approach. But would the alternatives of extreme pressure and the threat of regime change alter Grand Ayatollah Khamenei’s objectives and Iran’s behavior?

Indeed, already the Netanyahu government, a strong and vocal opponent of the nuclear deal, is reported to have relaxed some economic restrictions on companies doing business with Iran, allowing them to compete for major infrastructure project in Israel. Moreover, it is known that there were discussions between the European countries in the JCPOA about ways to strengthen it, but these came to an abrupt stop when President Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement. A further attempt at reason may be worth trying to prevent the restart of its nuclear weapons program. According to a recent INSS report, the war with Iran and Hezbollah at the northern border of Israel could spur violence into larger parts of Israel and expand conflict with terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip, due to the unstable nature of the borders. There must be an alternative short of war. Tragically, Teheran continues its “war of attrition” and keeps the international community guessing about their use of eye-ball-to-eye-ball confrontations.

Yonah Alexander is a professor emeritus at the State University of New York and currently director of the Inter-University Center for Terrorism Studies {ICTS) at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Arlington, Virginia. Milton Hoenig, a nuclear physicist, is a consultant to the ICTS.

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