As you may have heard, the risk of war between Israel and Iran is high. Even as Israel is determined to rid its borders of pro-Iranian actors, Iran is even more determined to extend and solidify its presence in Syria, and beyond into the wider region: politically, militarily and socially.
Many people are pinning their hopes for avoiding such a war on Iran backing down, thinking that threats and sanctions and limited military engagements will make it quit stoking conflict with Israel, Saudi Arabia and in the wider Middle East. But that’s not going to happen.
Here are four reasons why:
1. The Iranian hardliners have not closed the chapter on the Iran-Iraq war.
The majority of Iranian regime hardliners, generals and commanders who continue to shape Iran’s regional agenda, are Iran-Iraq war veterans who still yearn for revenge on the “evil” countries that helped Saddam Hussein kill their compatriots in the war he launched that lasted from 1980 to 1988.
Iran’s newest front line with Israel is along the contested Golan Heights in Syria. When commentators assess Iranian influence in Syria, many bring up Major General Qassem Soleimani, the mastermind and enforcer of Iran's overseas military strategies, commander of Iran's Quds Force, and one of the most senior officers in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Soleimani himself is an embittered survivor of the brutal Iran-Iraq War with a list of grievances as long as the list of his friends killed during that eight-year conflict.
Many Iran-Iraq war folk heroes, who survived that devastating conflict, were later dispatched to Syria and died there, among them Brigadier General Hamdani who was killed in 2015; Colonel Hasounzadeh who was killed in 2015; and Brigadier General Khosravi who was killed in 2017.
These same hardliners and commanders remember too well how the entire world, minus a bare handful of countries, sat idle while Saddam Hussein tried to annihilate them and their fledgling dream of a perfect Islamic Republic. They remember the many countries that helped arm their enemy during those years when over a million people were killed. And by those lights every war crime seen in Syria today, in their eyes—the sieges, displacement, relentless aerial bombardment of population centers, and chemical warfare—pales by comparison.
2. The Iranian hardliners who decided to risk everything for Assad made the decision based on their religious beliefs, and as help to an old ally who stood with them “against the world.”
During the Iran-Iraq war, Bashar’s father Hafez al-Assad was the first Arab president to break with the Arab League and actively support Iran. The only other Arab country to come to Iran’s aid was Libya under Muammar al-Gaddafi, but he provided merely symbolic support.
Hafez used every tool possible to undermine Saddam’s war machine, from disrupting the flow of goods between Syria and Iraq to shutting down the Kirkuk-Baniyas oil pipeline, depriving Saddam of 30 percent of his crude oil revenues from the Mediterranean. Hafez’s regime actively trained and armed Iranian paramilitaries inside Syria, hoping to help Iran as much as it could at a time when the United States and the Gulf countries supported Saddam Hussein with guns and money.
To be sure, there was a moment when the Americans and Israelis supplied some weapons to Tehran as well—the moment in the mid-1980s that came to be known as Irangate—but that was recognized by all parties as a cynical ploy to keep the war going, not to help Iran end it. The Iranians continue to credit God, their men, and their few steadfast friends for surviving that war without being defeated. And Syria was one of those friends.
Despite many differences between Syria and Iran, Hafez Assad was an unwavering friend to Iran, and this is something Tehran will never forget. Hafez Assad in 1979 recognized the newly created Islamic Republic of Iran, he supported its agenda throughout the Iran-Iraq war, through the Lebanese civil war, and he and his son later supported Iran’s position during the Iraq wars that engaged the Americans. Say what you will about the Iranian government, it is very loyal and committed to old friends. Just ask Hezbollah. For this reason, Iran has not and will not stop being loyal to Hafez Assad’s son, Bashar, no matter the sacrifice.
3. The hardliners’ legitimacy depends on holy wars and noble causes.
There is a serious shift underway in Iran’s domestic politics: people are electing reformers. Whether or not you think Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei cosmetically allows the “reformers” to run so he will merely appear to be giving people choices, the reformers’ rise is seriously challenging the hardliners and overall power dynamics in the country.
Reformers have been doing exceptionally well, despite having to compete with politicians who see themselves conducting missions on behalf of God. The hardliners and IRGC consider themselves as the bearers of the true word and custodians of many causes, from liberating Jerusalem and safeguarding Islam, to serving as the international headquarters for what they call the international resistance movement. They position themselves as if they are playing divine roles, sacred and untouchable, and some may actually believe that is true.
Yet many Iranians have begun to challenge the hardliners. Recently, the Iranian public has repeatedly broken the fear barrier, demanding answers to their questions about why the IRGC controls a third of the Iranian economy and why the government is sending billions in resources to Syria and Yemen when the economy at home is tanking.
The Iranian regime and its hardliner camp can still play their Welayat al-Faqih guarantee of religious authority and and the “resistance” card for now, as long as they continue to effectively manage their existing conflicts and announce new sacred missions abroad. Should the “resistance” stop resisting, its supposedly divine duties would end and it would lose its raison d'être.
4. The hardliners in Iran need client states and proxies to achieve their stated goals; if those proxies feel empowered enough, they will not need Iran. Paradoxically, it is therefore critical to Iran that its client states and foreign militias remain vulnerable.
Iran now more-or-less maintains hegemony over four Arab capitals: Beirut, Damascus, Sanaa, and Baghdad. Gaining control of these capitals required efforts that ranged from fighting tooth-and-nail, to merely watching adversaries fail due to domestic and regional political miscalculations.
Regardless of how Iran initially gained power over these capitals, the Iranian regime’s ability to continue to embed itself deeply in the social, economic and political fabric of these countries depends on their feeling continuously vulnerable. Iran does not shower its allies with money, prosperity, and infrastructure developments. The Iranian support stems from its ability to manage conflicts in the region, prop up the threats its clients face, and offer itself as a true and indispensable friend. If Iran’s clients do not feel threatened, they do not really feel the need to rely on Iran with all the baggage that accompanies it.
In Lebanon, for example, it is absolutely not in the interests of Iran for a pro-Western, pro-Saudi government to thrive. The more the Lebanese experience peace and enjoy a better standard of living, the more they are empowered, the greater the potential to challenge Iran’s ally and their flagship proxy, Lebanese Hezbollah. It is no coincidence that the former prime minister, Rafik al-Hariri, who was credited for slowly bringing back Lebanon’s prosperity and stability, was assassinated in a horrendous 2005 suicide bombing. The United Nations-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon later named four perpetrators: all are members of Hizbollah.
In Syria, Iran was not unhappy to see Bashar Assad isolated and pressured by the West for his role arming, training and supplying Islamist terrorists in Iraq following the 2003 U.S. invasion. But then Assad agreed to crack down on a variety of Syrian-based Islamist terror networks and share intelligence with the U.S., including information gained by torturing suspects. As a result, Assad was slowly welcomed back to the international community. He was even welcomed at a Bastille Day parade in Paris 10 years ago.
As Assad was embraced by foreign leaders, he began to entertain the thought of jumping off Iran’s “resistance” bandwagon. By some accounts he was preparing to sign a peace treaty with the Israeli government in 2011. But when Assad faced nationwide popular protests in 2011 and had to choose between reform or war, Iran made sure he went on the warpath.
Iran will not stop harassing Israel and the wider Middle East. While de-escalation may seem the rational thing to do, the Iranian hardliners’ ruling camp is acting on principles they abide by (loyalty and revenge), a “divine” agenda that they see as instrumental to their legitimacy (preserving Shiite shrines and exporting the revolution), and the maintenance of client states and other proxies.
These hardliners and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, understand that it is now tougher than ever to continue to be the ultimate and untouchable force that dictates what Iran’s society, economy and policy look like. To maintain an edge over the reformers, the hardliners need to drum up what they deem as sacred causes and find proxies to help them pursue these policies. Without all of the above, the Supreme Leader and the hardliners would lose their legitimacy, and maybe even their power.