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By Jeffrey T. Fowler, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, School of Security and Global Studies, American Military University
Since the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979 and the Iranian Revolution, U.S. and Iranian political and military goals have been at odds. The situation was exacerbated by the storming of the U.S. Embassy, the taking of more than 60 American hostages, and the agonizing 444 days of the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis, which included an abortive U.S. attempt to rescue the hostages and the loss of life.
On the day Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency on January 20, 1981, the hostages were released and returned to the U.S. That episode was followed by the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, in which the U.S. supported its future enemy, Iraq.
While Iran was a concern, the Cold War dominated U.S. and allied strategy. The U.S. adopted the idea that “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Some Parts of Iranian Society Still Pro-West
Since 1979, an active element in Iranian society has remained pro-Western, despite the radical extremism and anti-U.S. regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini and his successors. In 2009, serious protests broke out against the government in Iran.
It is safe to say Iran is composed of three groups: One group with a radical Muslim ideology actively opposes U.S. interests around the world; an active group that supports more contact with the West; and a third group that remains largely silent. The U.S. has courted the pro-Western group, but in only a desultory fashion.
The situation that the United States finds itself in today is one of deteriorating relations with the Iranian government. This situation is due to the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear “deal” and the presence of active terrorist and paramilitary operations around the world by the Iranian-supported terrorist group Hezbollah and its paramilitary Quds Force.
Background of the Quds (Jerusalem) Force
The Quds Force is an organ of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and is known within that organization as the IRGC-QF. The Quds Force is used as a primary means of exporting the Iranian Revolution around the world.
It is the primary organ by which the Iranian government promotes terrorism abroad through groups like Hamas, the Taliban, Lebanese Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The Quds Force has been active in operations against U.S. forces in Iraq – a country that it uses as a training ground for learning American tactics and procedures.
As of 2015, approximately 196 Americans had been killed by Explosively Formed Penetrators (EFPs) in Iraq. It is believed that through the Quds Force, the Iranians supplied or taught the Iraqi insurgents and foreign fighters how to construct these deadly devices.
The Quds Force was also implicated in a plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. in Washington, D.C., in 2011. But Quds Force’ activities are not conducted without pushback from the U.S. and its allies. Recently, when Iranian forces launched rockets into Israel from Syria, the attack was met by massive retaliation and the destruction of Iranian targets in Syria.
Hezbollah’s Activities in the Middle East and Abroad
Hezbollah was formed in Lebanon in 1983 and was originally supported by Lebanese and Palestinian interests. Hezbollah later became an arm of Iran. The link between Hezbollah and Iran stems from their Shi’ite populations.
Iran uses Hezbollah as a surrogate for carrying out its revolutionary aims in the Middle East and even south of our border, in much the same way surrogate forces were used during the Cold War. This tactic gives Iran a certain degree of deniability, even though it has been common knowledge for many years that money, arms and training flow from Iran to Hezbollah in significant amounts.
At present, Hezbollah, the Quds Force and the Assad regime are working together in Syria to gain ascendency in the long and destructive Syrian civil war. Iran also supports Hamas, which has resulted in an Iran-Quds Force-Hezbollah-Hamas connection.
In addition, Hezbollah and Iran have been active in Latin America In 1994, for example, the bombing of the Asociacion Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA), a major Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, brought worldwide attention to Iran-controlled Hezbollah operations in that part of the Western hemisphere.
Long-Term Iranian Strategy in the Middle East
The Iranians have long pursued a focused goal for the Middle East to use surrogates such as Hamas and Hezbollah, as well as a burgeoning nuclear arms program, to assume regional hegemony over their neighbors. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States are well aware of and quite concerned by this strategy.
There are two main challenges to Iran achieving its regional goal: First, Israel is believed to have nuclear weapons as well as an extremely powerful military. Second, the U.S. supports both Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Some commentators, including Richard A. Epstein of the Hoover Institute, called the Obama administration weak and not likely to effectively answer any threat from Iran in concrete military terms. However, the Trump administration is quite different. It is a staunch supporter of both Israel and Saudi Arabia and exhibits a willingness to use America’s considerable force if need be.
Despite its militant rhetoric, the current regime in Tehran is pragmatic. It will wait until some future and perhaps less decisive government comes to power in the U.S. before the regime takes more overt actions against U.S. allies in the region.
Long-Term Global Strategy For Iran
Since the Iranian Revolution, the primary goal of Iran’s foreign policy has been, like that of the former Soviet Union, to export its revolution worldwide. A secondary goal is to destabilize the influence of the U.S. outside the Middle East whenever possible.
This is a goal Tehran has been pursuing with limited success in Latin America, although Iran has worked closely with illegal entities in the tri-border area where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet.
For example, a 2017 U.S. State Department report described money-laundering operations in Paraguay involving Hezbollah. A recent investigation revealed that the failed state of Venezuela was using its embassy in Iran to allegedly sell passports and identity items to Middle Eastern recipients.
On the world stage, Iran routinely uses the United Nations to promote the idea that the U.S. and its allies are the world’s true terrorists. Recently, Iranian lawmakers burned an American flag, as Iranians have been doing since the Revolution, to show their disdain for the West.
Countering the Iranian Threat to a Stable World
Recently, protests broke out across Iran against the Tehran regime. The most effective means for destabilizing the Iranian regime is to support that powerful element of the Iranian people who are pro-Western.
The U.S. should support such groups, but in doing so, we should be mindful of past debacles and not attempt to take sides between two or more pro-Western Iranian groups. It is not uncommon for such groups to have differing agendas and not always ones that are friendly to the U.S. and its allies in the long-term.
Differences of that sort should be worked out on their own, while the U.S. provides tacit support on the strategic level rather than on the tactical level. The U.S. should also work with Latin American nations to identify and destroy the links between terrorism and drug cartels in the region.
Unfortunately, the world is an uncertain and dangerous place. History amply demonstrates that appeasement of repressive regimes tends to convince those regimes of their superiority and of the weakness of their enemies. One well-known example was British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s attempt to appease Nazi leader Adolf Hitler in 1938, prior to the outbreak of the Second World War.
These lessons suggest that nations of good will must speak from a position of strength. They must be willing to act on their strength when necessary to stop the expansion of unethical regimes.
Being strong is not enough. Governments and people must also be willing to use that strength, lest their unwillingness be interpreted as weakness in the face of their enemies. This can lead to larger and more disastrous wars, destruction and catastrophe. “Pax in virtute” (“peace through strength”) is good advice for the survival of any nation-state.
About the Author
Jeffrey T. Fowler, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the School of Security and Global Studies at American Military University. He holds a B.A. in law enforcement from Marshall University, an M.A. in military history from Vermont College of Norwich University and a Ph.D. in business administration with a concentration in criminal justice from Northcentral University. Jeffrey is also a published author, a former New York deputy sheriff and a retired Army officer, having served over 20 years in the U.S. Army. He currently serves on the editorial board of the International Journal of Risk and Contingency Management (IJRCM).
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