Both countries are fighting proxy wars
by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
A little more than a month ago, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader and the commander-in-chief of the Iranian military, told army commanders to closely follow Islamic religious regulations.
“One of the characteristics of the Islamic Republic of Iran Army is revolutionary religious insight and religious commitment,” Khamenei said. “This is a very great claim.”
That doesn’t sound unusual … for an Islamic theocracy. But it’s slightly odd, because defending the revolution is normally the job of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, or IRGC. It’s not so much a job for the IRIA — which is Iran’s regular army.
This is worth some dissecting.
For one, the Iranian political system is highly redundant — with lots of checks and balances between different governing bodies. The largest share of political power resides in the Ayatollah and the Guardians Council, but they don’t have absolute power.
The same general principle extends to the military — of which Iran has two ground branches. The best-trained and equipped branch is the IRGC — which is also responsible for defending the Islamic revolution and exporting it abroad through the clandestine Quds Force.
By design, the IRGC is more political than the “regular” army. Most regular army soldiers are conscripts, and the institution itself derives from before the Islamic revolution of 1979. The regular army primarily exists to defend Iranian territory in the event of an invasion.
The Ayatollah has control over both the IRGC and the IRIA. But the idea is that no single military force is powerful enough to rule the country. It’s also interesting that Khamenei is urging the regular army to take on a more Islamic philosophy.
In addition to arguing that the army must commit to Islam’s military regulations, Khameini pressed that the army should follow the Surat Al’Anfal, Quran 8:60.
“This verse means that you should not be taken by surprise,” Khamenei said. “It means that if an enemy attacks you, you should not suffer a loss because of a lack of weapons, ammunitions and preparedness. This is because your loss will be the people’s loss. Your loss will be Islam’s loss.”
The U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office thought the verse in Khameini’s speech was notable. “In more contemporary religious discussion it is often used to justify religiously tinged warfare,” the office’s newsletter stated.
“In effect, Khamenei is announcing that not only the IRGC, but also the regular army should be considered forces for the defense, if not propagation of religion.”
Later in April, Khameini spoke to commanders of Iran’s paramilitary Basij and police forces. He warned against un-Islamic activities spreading in the country, such as wealthy young people driving around in fashionable cars and attending illegal parties.
“In this implication he is voicing a similar belief to that which has been propagated in the Sunni world by more radical factions of the Muslim Brotherhood and by Salafi clerics in Saudi Arabia, who denounce manifestations of Western culture permeating the Middle East as a deliberate plot to undermine Islam,” OE Watch noted.
It’s difficult to read the tea leaves of Iran’s internal politics. Pres. Hassan Rouhani is moderate compared to his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinjad. But Khameini’s speeches could mark the beginning of a shift back toward more hardline policies — or an ideological hardening of the military as Iran fights proxy wars in Iraq and Syria.
A similar process seems to already be underway in Saudi Arabia. King Salman, the new monarch who took power this year after the death of King Abdullah, has embarked on a war in Yemen. It’s a radical departure for Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy, which has often taken a backseat to larger players such as the United States.
Not any more.
At home, reports from Riyadh suggest a hardening of social and cultural laws — such as new restrictions on colored gowns for women. Shops that sold gowns in colors other than black have recently seen their goods seized by the religious police.
There’s a logic to these new restrictions in a feudal monarchy in the middle of an exploding region. Hardline policies are often a reaction to uncertainty.
The logic works like this — If allowing women to wear gowns in colors other than black means potentially opening the door to more social or political change, when the region itself is undergoing a great deal of turmoil, then Saudi elites crack down.
Then there’s the potential rapprochement between the United States and Iran — a large, highly populated and educated state by regional standards. Saudi elites fear that Tehran may use cooling relations with Washington to expand its influence more broadly.
But Saudi Arabia is playing the same game. In Syria, Riyadh has backed and armed the rebel Islamic Front, who are fighting to overthrow the Iran-backed dictator Bashar Assad.
“Given the specter of a rising Iran, and a U.S. shift from a policy of containment to partial engagement, it’s not surprising that Saudi Arabia would re-evaluate its foreign policy,” Gary Sick, a former White House adviser on Iran policy, wrote in Politico.
“But the speed of the strategic shift, and its magnitude, have been stunning.”
Now zoom out. Two of the region’s strongest military powers are fighting wars abroad. There’s signs of hardening conservative policies at home. It’s impossible to predict events in the Middle East — but this is a dangerous trend.