Book Review: Iran, Revolution and Proxy wars by Ofira Seliktar and Farhad Rezaei

In their book, ‘Iran, Revolution and Proxy Wars’, Ofira Seliktar and Farhad Rezaei throw light on the various proxy war tactics undertaken by Iran ever since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The 1979 Revolution in the Islamic Republic of Iran was one of the most significant political events in the Middle East. The book begins with depicting the political and religious scenario in Iran in the aftermath of the revolution and highlights the various strategies—proxy wars and asymmetrical warfare that the country chose to define its regional policies. For readers taking an avid interest in the Middle East in general and Iran’s foreign policy in particular, the book is an engrossing read.

Get your copy: Iran, Revolution and Proxy wars by Ofira Seliktar and Farhad Rezaei

Seliktar and Rezaei have divided their book into seven chapters with a conclusion at the end. The first chapter is titled ‘Exporting the Revolution and Building Hegemony’. It is further divided into three subparts—(a) ‘The duality of the new regime: Iran as a state and an exporter of the revolution’ (b)’The enemies of Islam: The Great Satan and the Little Satan’ (c)’Erecting the infrastructure for revolutionary export: Asymmetrical warfare by proxies’. Since the Revolution, Iran continued to be a predominantly Shiite region. Pinning their beliefs in the Occultation theory, the Shiites justified their non participation in religious and political affairs, simultaneously. Combining the post-occultation theology and socialist principles, the Ayatollah Khomeini established a theocratic regime that he based on the principles of Velayat-e-faqih. The mandate of the Velayat-e-faqih asserted that the entire universe of Muslim countries must be included under the influence of the Islamic Republic. Khomeini urged all Muslim nations to join in this holy war—jihad; and export the Islamist Revolution beyond the boundaries of Iran.

Islamic Revolution in Iran/ Image source: Wikimedia Commons

The authors also shed light on the foundation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) under Ayatollah Khomeini who observed exporting of the revolution as Iran’s top agenda. That the Western culture has always been viewed in a negative light, has found place in the second part of the first chapter. Right from the anti-colonial to the anti-western rhetoric, Iran has disregarded the growing American hegemony which it refers to as the ‘White Revolution’. In this part, therefore, the Khomeini’s recognition of the United States as a ‘Great Satan’ is highlighted. Apart from the West, Iran’s interests in competing with Saudi Arabia for domination on the Muslim world, growing interest in Jerusalem and a burgeoning anti-Zionist ideology resulted in the Ayatollah’s terminology of ‘Little Satan’ to refer to the Jews.

By the time readers are on the third subpart, the focus shifts significantly to the Ayatollah’s hopes of expanding and securing the Shiite Crescent by means of proxy war tactics. Well acquainted with the fact that attempts of upheavals in Iran could trigger a wave of terror in the Middle East, the Manzariah Camp (in Tehran)offered to train militants to improve their warfare skills and prepare a base for exporting the Revolution. The structure of the proxy war tactics has been established in the first chapter and enters into detailed analysis in the chapters ahead. 

The second chapter titled ‘Hezbollah in Lebanon- Creating the Model Proxy’ deals extensively with the emergence of the Hezbollah as a model proxy with Lebanon’s political system in the background. The first subpart talks about the structure of the Hezbollah which instituted a welfare system for the Shiite poor by offering medical services and education free of cost. The next two chapters set the base for enriching discussion on the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the attack on Kuwait. One of the prime principles of Iran, since the Revolution, was anti-Zionism. This persuaded Iran to access military aid and fight against Israel. Apart from the destruction of their Zionist enemy, Iran has also entered Lebanon with its goal of dismantling the terror structure of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. 

Iran Revolutionary Guard Corp/ Image source: BBC

The perusal of the IRGC made way for the Hezbollah to enter the political process and legitimise its existence. Further, the application of asymmetrical warfare strategies during the 1982 Lebanese invasion opened avenues for the IRGC to improve the Hezbollah’s warfare skills by training them in guerrilla methods and suicide bombing. In the mean time, Imad Mughniyah, with impressive military skills developed the Student’s Brigade, which along with the Quds Force (QF), considered abduction and plane hijacking as an important tool for demonstrating the Lebanese power. While discussing the lessons learnt from the second Lebanon War in the final part, the authors have elucidated the Hezbollah’s multiple proxy warfare strategies in Iran’s perpetual battle against Israeli and American hegemony.

The third chapter takes a shift from the Hezbollah to the rise of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) as an Iranian proxy war strategy against Israel. The driving force here was Khomeini’s ‘izala’ fatwa which was a call to eliminate the ‘Little Satan’ or Zionist enemy. The Revolutionary Guards helped to legitimise Hamas in Iran by early 1990s and sought to liberate Jerusalem. The authors also talk about Iranian adoption of the ‘spoiling strategy’ (conceptualised by Steven J. Stedman). Iranian leaders and Palestinian proxies acted as total spoilers by using extreme violence to undermine the peace process.  What posed a challenge to the export of the Revolution and Tehran’s geopolitical ambitions was the Oslo Peace Process. Meanwhile, the next subpart takes the readers through the second Intifada opted by Arafat to terminate the peace process.

The Islamist terror groups continued to be largely funded by Iran. The Iranians and Hezbollah contributed to the Intifada by smuggling weapons. With praise for the Intifada pouring in from the Ayatollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad took to the Hezbollah in a number of ways and found themselves in the midst of heated engagement in Gaza. The construction of tunnels for abduction led the Hamas to build an ‘underground city’. Not only were the Hamas able to develop overwhelming technology, but also notched some success by using these new tactics. 

The fourth chapter draws our attention to the ‘patchy’ link between the IRGC and the Al-Qaeda. During the siege of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in November 1979, the Ayatollah Khomeini came to realise the potential of the Sunni Salafists. With the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the IRGC was presented with an opportunity to expand its revolutionary export. Khomeinists further aimed at transforming Sudan into a center of global anti-Western jihad movement. Osama bin Laden invested heavily in Sudan to develop the jihadist infrastructure in the country. The IRGC made a safe passage for Bin Laden in the Sudanese territory under Iranian leadership. The next subpart deals with the Iran-Sudan Islamist cooperation established to use Somalia as a base to demonstrate their opposition to the American forces. Using the Al-Qaeda as a proxy, Bin Laden relocated to Afghanistan while the IRGC-QF continued to train the Al-Qaeda. 

The first testimony of a collaborative attack against the Clinton administration appeared in the form of an explosion in the US housing complex in Dhahran; it was executed by the Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah and Revolutionary Guards. Post 9/11, Qassem Suleimani executed an ‘exfiltration project’—a number of Al-Qaeda militants and family members of Bin Laden were moved to Tehran. Latest developments of the anti-Shiite ISIS posed a threat to Tehran’s interests in Afghanistan. However, what served as the common ground was their rising opposition to the American hegemony. 

The authors in the fifth chapter acknowledge the close historical ties between Iranian and Iraqi Shiites. The Office of the Liberation Movement (OLM) and the Quds Force minutely observed Iraq as their next proxy. Meanwhile, leader of the Dawa Party, Ayatollah Shahroudi conceived the Badr Brigade in 1982 in Qom. This further boosted the proxy tactics of the IRGC-QF. Tensions accelerated after 9/11 when the Ayatollah Khamenei sensed grave danger with possibilities of an American invasion in the Middle East. However, American plans to depose the Saddam Hussein regime was viewed by Tehran as ‘God’s gift to Iran’. The IRGC seized this opportunity to undermine the burgeoning American presence in Iraq by seeking help from the Shiite Badr Brigade. 

Unaware of the IRGC’s growing ties with the Badr Brigade, the US ventured into a controversial decision such as de-Baathification to dismantle the Iraqi army. Albeit the Americans assumed that undermining the influence of the Baath Party would help to reshape Iraq’s political culture along the lines of liberal democracy, it ultimately turned the country into a land of unprecedented chaos and violence. Moreover, with the coming to power of the Maliki Government, tensions between the Shiites and Sunnis deepened and prepared the country for a civil war. The extremely corrupt regime called for an overwhelming public criticism. The political missteps of the Maliki Government exacerbated a backlash from the Al-Qaeda Iraq (AQI) turned Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The self-defeating politics of Maliki weakened Iraq’s plans to turn into another Lebanon. 

US condemns Iranian presence in Syria
Image source: Kurdistan 24

As the readers move on to the sixth part, the focus shifts to the historically established ties between Syria and Iran. The geostrategic location of Syria had made Damascus indispensable to the revolutionary export project. The IRGC considered Syria as an integral part of the ‘Axis of Resistance’.  With Damascus losing an ally in the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War, it established stronger links with Iran to counter the American supremacy in the Middle East. Relations were consolidated when the Bashar-al-Assad assumed power. The IRGC-QF, with support from the Ayatollah Khamenei set out to curb the emergence of anti-Assad Militias. Convinced by the fact that ‘if we lose Syria, we lose Tehran’, Suleimani instituted the Shiite Liberation Army as a group of Shiite volunteers to participate in a virtual extension of Iranian territory. 

The Russian-Iranian alliance comes into the picture next whereby, Suleimani turned to its former ally to save the regime. Russia, in turn, continued to utilise Tehran as a potential base for supply of Russian ships to the Mediterranean. The IRGC-QF, keen to ensure a seamless supply of weapons to the Hezbollah, completed a number of strategic projects which culminated in the creation of new missile sites. Iran’s revolutionary project has, in fact, been recognised as its “geographical continuation into Lebanon.” An extensive of military-political infrastructure had been erected by Iranians for perusal of independent politics. 

The final chapter of the book accounts for Proxy strategies in and beyond the Gulf region, comprising Saudi Arabia, Gulf States and Yemen. Although, the Ayatollah’s prime goal was to eliminate Israel, the primary objective for the IRGC was destabilisation of long time foe, Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabians were regarded by Iranians as corrupt and unfit of identifying themselves as the custodians of holy sites like Mecca and Medina. Shiite grievances in the Eastern Province offered the perfect platform to execute strategies against Saudi Arabia. What followed next was the emergence of the Zaydi Shiite rebel group, the Houthis, an eighth-century offshoot.

The Houthis were subjected to extensive material assistance from the Iranians. Their transition from a motley tribal band into a disciplined and well equipped military force was nothing short of astonishing.  The IRGC-QF and Hezbollah partnership successfully converted the Houthis into Fourth Generation Warfare Warriors (4GW) while also hoping to recognise Yemen as an access point to the Bab-al-Mandab Strait. A broader goal of Iran was to include the strait of Bab-al-Mandab into its Anti-Access, Area-Denial (A2/AD) strategy. The Houthis utilised a number of occasions to repeatedly attack ports and oil bases in Saudi Arabia but suffered a severe blow with the institution of a Saudi-led coalition against their power. Unarguably, the Houthis have remained one of the major and most successful examples of proxy power till date. 

Image source: Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

To conclude, the demonstrations of proxy war tactics by the Islamic Republic have been a resounding success. The book touches on all major aspects ranging from successful IRGC proxy strategies in Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen as well the advent of a massive Shiite Crescent to destabilise the Middle East. As opposed to the Revolutionary Guards was the international community, trying to curb numerous violations and international law. With such extensive reading, this book becomes a must-read for individuals aiming to delve deeper into Iran’s foreign policy or a study of the Middle East.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Apurbaa Sengupta

Apurbaa Sengupta is an outgoing undergraduate student in Political Science from Jadavpur University. She can be reached at [email protected]

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