In the realm of international relations, aggressive acts are often signs of true weakness. This morning, Iran is sending two naval warships through the Suez canal toward Syria. This is an unusual move by the Iranian regime putting war ships in close proximity to Israel and Egypt, where the military is still attempting to consolidate power under a provisional government until elections can take place. The provocative act of sending the ships through the canal is not in and of itself that noteworthy from an international relations stand point. It is their destination that is critical.
Two things. If you are a country looking to demonstrate regional power, force projection is your number one tool. This is accomplished mainly through the use of your blue water navy, something I have written about extensively here pertaining to China’s military rise. Make no mistake, Iran has ambitions of being THE regional power in Central Asia and the Middle East. And rightly so, Iran sits in a critical position geographically between east and west, holding choke points both on land and at sea, and good resource reserves. It is a very large country with a rich cultural history. I have always seen the Iranian situation through the nationalistic lens and less from the theocratic religious perspective. The Iranians seek to take their rightful place in the region.
But the leadership will guide how they go about looking to accomplish this goal. And right now, the Ayatollah doesn’t much enjoy having the situation in the region dictated by the values of globalization, which threaten his ability to hold an iron grip on the situation, both within his country and within the broader region.
In the past few weeks we have seen the overthrow of two dictators in countries with large Muslim majorities. Several other countries in the region are seeing protests from young, secular, educated citizens decrying the fact that their governments have stranded them on what amounts to the Easter Island of the global economy. The internet and social web have penetrated this group and they are now well aware that militant Islam does not solve the problem of their economic stagnation, nor does blaming the west.
If you’re the Iranian leader right now, this is the worst possible thing that could have happened. Egypt was certainly not an Iranian ally, but has a history of a radical sect of Islam within its society. Above all else the United States was, and rightfully so, worried about creating a power vacuum in Egypt and opening up the possibility of stronger ties with Iran.
Why do you think we have flooded the region in recent days with diplomats? As the region becomes more politically unstable, and it will become much more unstable before this is over, the possibility of leaders grasping for anything they can will increase. Our diplomats have flooded the region to steer the thinking of these rulers away from looking for allies that would allow them to preserve power, and toward making political and social reforms, moving away from trying to grip the situation tighter.
Specifically, we’ve flooded the zone as they call it, to make sure that Iran does not gain influence in the region as these guys sweat it out and look for help. And you can bet that Iran has launched a full scale flood of their own. In Lebanon, Nasrallah is flapping his mouth about taking back the Galilee from Israel in any subsequent war. You can bet Hezbollah has mobilized assets to prevent any kind of uprising in Lebanon now that it has taken complete control of the government. Assad in Syria, who at the end of the day is not radical at all, is sweating his ass off as he tries to figure out what’s more dangerous, his deal with the devil (Iran), or his own people who are getting restless.
And this is where the Iranian ships come into play. This move by Iran should be seen as a major sign of weakness as they signal to Assad that they aren’t going to easily allow him to walk away from that relationship, no matter how much he doesn’t like it. You’ve got to think Assad feels like taking a bath every time he bends to Iran, but knows that Hezbollah and Hamas are really all that will keep him in power as this wave of democratic uprising spreads like a wildfire through the region. The Saudis have their deal with the devil (the US), Assad has his (Iran).
As young people throughout the region march in the streets, including Iranians, the regime is panicking, shutting itself off from the outside world socially by taking down the internet. At the same time it is flailing its tentacles, now including its navy, in order to keep some kind of grip on its assets throughout the region. I know this is a really dorky reference, but I see it as very similar to when the emperor says towards the end of Revenge of the Sith, “I sense Lord Vader is in trouble.” Vader has just been cut down by Obi Wan on that fire planet and he’s rolling around on the ground. The Iranians are scared.
The game is on in the region as all of the pieces on the board have been thrown up in the air. It must be a really exiting time to be a diplomat, and definitely a time when I remember why I gave great thought to working in this field.