By the time my tour in Iraq was wrapping up, the mine resistant vehicles we traveled in could take a solid hit from pretty much anything out there and get us home alive, except for one thing: (allegedly, cough, cough) Iranian-made IEDs. These shaped lens explosively formed penetrating devices fired a liquefied white hot slug of molten copper that was about the only weapon that really scared us. The Iranians were players in all parts of Iraqi society post-2003, including the daily violence. You found Iranian products in the markets, and the tourism business around significant Shia shrines was run by and for Iranians. They were at minimum fighting a proxy war in Iraq, and that war was very, very real for me.
So then it is not much of a surprise to learn that the State Department accuses Iran of helping the Syrian government suppress protests. “We believe that there is credible information that Iran is assisting Syria” in quelling the protesters, Department spokesperson Mark Toner said Thursday. Iranian assistance includes gear used to suppress crowds, as well as equipment and technical advice for monitoring and blocking e-mail, cell phones, text messaging, and Internet postings by and among activists.
Meanwhile, in Greater Georgebushistan (Baghdad), public demonstrations have been banned, and the government has suppressed crowds with tear gas and water cannons. The Iraqi police drive HUMVEES and wear uniforms strikingly similar to our own. Which country could possibly be providing them with such tools of control? (Jeopardy Hint: What is Not Iran.)
Meanwhile, Bahrain’s Sunni monarchy, since calling in Saudi troops last month to crush the protest movement, has been quietly dismantling the country’s Shiite-led opposition. The government announced an investigation into the activities of Bahrain’s largest political party, the Shiite-dominated al-Wefaq, which could lead to its (very undemocratic) ban. While Obama appealed to the Bahraini government for restraint, the administration hasn’t done much more than that, creating a disparity that is fueling anti-U.S. sentiment among Bahraini opposition groups, who are allegedly supported by (wait for it) Iran.
Why not whack Bahrain a little harder diplomatically? The Washington Post notes that “US officials privately acknowledge that the administration has been understated in its criticism of Bahrain, in part to avoid further strain in relations with Saudi Arabia. The Sunni Saudi, of course, are one of the most influential anti-Iran forces in the Gulf.
The Sunni-Shia siding is also of interest, with the US increasingly throwing in its lot with the Sunnis (Syria is an obvious exception; the Washington Post reports via Wikileaks that the US is financially supporting the “opposition,” flavor unknown, against the
Sunni (see comment below) government). Such arrangements– expedient choices– tend to go bad faster than a Brooks Brothers suit at an Insane Clown Posse concert, as we inherit all the baggage of centuries old hatreds at no extra cost.
Need more? The Wall Street Journal comes close, positing a Saudi-Iranian Cold War. Iranian proxy warfare in Lebanon is well documented in Robert Baer’s excellent book, The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower, which also advances the US v. Iran proxy theory in general.
Bottom line: keep an eye on the democracy movements in the Middle East. After wiping away all the noise about jasmine revolutions, a lot of what we are seeing may just be another incarnation of the long war between the US and Iran.
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