From Billboards to Signs: Iran’s Rise and Obama’s Failure

9 May 2017 Lindsay Hughes, Research Analyst, Indian Ocean Research Programme Download PDF

Key Points

  • Iran’s nuclear programme, coupled with the violent rhetoric emanating from Tehran, continues to pose a regional threat.
  • Its actions in Yemen and Syria appear to emphasise that threat.
  • Its aggressiveness has emboldened its proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah, to threaten Israel.
  • A good deal of the responsibility for this situation may be laid at the door of the Obama Administration because its unwillingness or inability to match its words with action has, in large part, enabled Iran’s present ascendancy.


According to a relatively recent report, the militant group, Hezbollah, which usually operates in Lebanon, recently erected a billboard that stated, ‘The account is not settled.’ The billboard also contained images of Hezbollah leaders, including Imad Mughniyeh, who was allegedly assassinated by Israeli forces in February 2008 when his car was blown up. The sign also showed a map of infiltration routes from Lebanon into Israel.

Hezb billboard


Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran, is only one instrument that Tehran has employed in its de facto enterprise to gain primacy in the region. Despite its ongoing financial problems and issues of Iranian troop morale, Hezbollah continues to assert its desire to conduct violent strikes, if not all-out war, against Israel, no doubt at the behest of Tehran. Its chief, Hassan Nasrallah, has threatened to strike ammonia storage tanks in Haifa, saying that such a strike could result in the death of around 800 thousand Israelis. The threat was taken seriously enough for the plant to be closed. He also indicated that the recent meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and US President Trump signalled the end of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, adding that Hezbollah missiles would target Israel’s nuclear facility at Dimona.

Nasrallah knows that he has the power to carry out his threats, even if that forces Israel to act against Hezbollah in a way that can only end in the group’s annihilation. Hezbollah’s military, which consists of at least fifty thousand personnel, is more powerful than Lebanon’s army, possesses US troop carriers, allegedly has around 120,000 missiles aimed at Israel and could possibly have received Russian air defence missile systems from Iran.

Hezbollah’s rhetoric is, however, a reflection of Iran’s recent ascendancy and growing self-confidence in its ability to ignore or even negate the weak terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the so-called nuclear agreement that was signed by Iran, the five members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany. As a result of that agreement, vast sums of money (some reports allege up to US$150 billion) that had been previously frozen were returned to Iran. Washington’s simultaneous withdrawal from its position of security guarantor in the Middle East further emboldened the Iranian theocracy. As a consequence, Lebanon is more or less an Iranian fiefdom governed in all but name by Tehran’s proxy, Hezbollah, thus turning the country into an ideological battleground between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which has a vested interest in Beirut. Yemen is, similarly, a state engaged in a civil war instigated by Houthi rebels who have been trained and armed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, especially so after the fall of the Saleh Government. It is Iranian missiles that the Houthi insurgents launch into Saudi territory and at US and Saudi vessels at sea. Tehran has more or less declared Bahrain, a sovereign state, to be its fourteenth province and Iranian military “advisors” are active in Syria where they, together with their Russian counterparts, work to keep the Syrian dictator, Bashar al Assad in power. More so than they do on Russia, Assad and, ultimately, Syria, depend on Iran for political and diplomatic support, which places that country, too, effectively under Iranian control. Iranian security agencies, additionally, have recruited large numbers of Shi’ite people from Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight in Syria. As Islamic State’s power wanes, furthermore, Iran’s regional influence increases. Syria is being carved up and Iran is using its forces and those of Russia to expel Sunni fighters, be those from Islamic State or Jabhat al-Nusra, from the country.

Iran has effectively taken control of a large swathe of territory extending from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea – the Shi’ite Crescent that King Abdullah of Jordan referred to a decade ago. It has taken control of Iraq, is in the process of becoming the dominant power in Syria, and is expelling Islamic State from both those countries using Shiite militias under its command. It has accomplished all this, notably, without having to resort to the threat or use of nuclear weapons. The Islamic Republic has, as a consequence, become a major stakeholder in Iraq’s and Syria’s futures. It is reported that Mosul, in Iraq, is close to being re-taken by Iraqi troops who are battling Islamic State fighters. When that happens, there is little doubt that the city and eventually much of Iraq will come under Tehran’s influence.

Iran has created a force of militants in Iraq that targets Islamic State fighters. In the perception of many Iraqis, their most effective ally is not the United States but Iran. Many Iraqis believe that the US is in Iraq only to help the Kurds establish their homeland and not to assist Iraq. This belief, coupled with the perception that Iran is actually fighting for Iraqis against Islamic State, has given Tehran enormous influence in Baghdad. If the Trump Administration continues with its stated objective of withdrawing from Iraq, Iran will undoubtedly become even more powerful in that country and the region, overall.

There are currently three Shi’ite leaders who are contending for power in Iraq, the former Prime Minister and head of the State of Law Coalition Nouri al-Maliki, the chief of the Islamic Supreme Council, Ammar al-Hakim and the Sadrist leader, Muqtada al-Sadr. Since each seeks to lead the country, they must necessarily ensure that the other two are removed as threats to themselves or that their power is severely curtailed. The best way of accomplishing this goal would be to work with Iran, especially by ridding the country of Islamic State, a Sunni organisation. No doubt Iraqi religious leaders such as Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who has been battling Islamic State since it captured Mosul in 2014, will play a major part in this effort. Another potential intermediary between the Iraqi and Iranian leaderships could be the Kurds, specifically the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan group, which is closely connected to some Iranian leaders. While there are no truly tried and tested relations between the Iraqi leaders and this group, a future relationship cannot be ruled out completely.

If and when Iraq comes under Iranian influence, the next logical step for Iran would be to spend time in gathering its forces, recovering from its present military and geostrategic battles, and then planning a strike against its stated enemy, Israel, its “little Satan”. If that were to happen, the balance of power in the Middle East would be fundamentally altered, the region plunged into a protracted period of conflict and turmoil and the international repercussions catastrophic. In such a situation, there could be little doubt that Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates would back Israel in a war against Iran. The current status quo in the Middle East would be cast aside and new relationships formed. It is very likely that Israel would be emboldened to settle scores once and for all with Iran and Hezbollah and, simultaneously, put an end to its issues with the Palestinian Authority by eliminating Hamas and ending that organisation’s activities against Tel Aviv, such as the firing of rockets into Israel from Palestine. Doing so could have the effect of bringing the Palestinian Authority under Tel Aviv’s influence. While Israel would undoubtedly suffer Iranian missile attacks against its population centres and infrastructure, it would wreak untold damage on Iran in order to eliminate the threat that the theocracy poses. It is very likely that Israel would target the Iranian leaders individually in an attempt to bring the theocracy and the Islamic Revolution to an end. Apart from using its submarines, which would be allowed to pass through the Suez Canal, it would use its fighter aircraft that are stationed in Azerbaijan to target Iran’s nuclear facilities and the ayatollahs.

The blame for such a situation could be laid at the feet of the Obama Administration. Just as with the situation in the South China Sea, it was the dangerous decision by that administration to divest itself of its role as the regional security guarantor that enabled Iran or, more accurately, the ruling Iranian theocracy, to attempt to step into the emerging vacuum and replace Washington. That replacement was not, however, as a security guarantor, but as the primary power, one with an ideology that it perceives as being superior to others.

As part of a much-publicised interview with President Obama, his National Security Advisor, Susan Rice, alleged that the JCPOA with Iran was ‘pragmatic and minimalist’, adding that its objective ‘was very simply to make a dangerous country substantially less dangerous. No one had any expectation that Iran would be a more benign actor.’ This begs the question, if there were no such expectations, why was Iran allowed to be able to restart its nuclear programme after a relatively brief hiatus? Could it be that the Obama Administration was simply postponing a thorny issue, leaving it for the next occupant of the White House? At a time when it was more or less taken for granted that the next administration would be headed by Hillary Clinton, that particular tactic says much for the relationship between Obama and his successor, who was widely expected to be the first female president of the US. The JCPOA, on the other hand, immediately de-hyphenated Iran’s export of its ideology, the Islamic revolution, and its funding of groups like the Houthi and Hezbollah from its nuclear programme. Obama himself argued that minus this agreement, the US had but one option: to go to war against Iran. It was likely his personality conflict with Netanyahu, however, that saw him dismiss the latter’s “third way” out of hand. Netanyahu proposed that much deeper cuts be made to Iran’s nuclear programme, that Tehran be forced to abandon its threats to destroy Israel and to cease its export of its revolutionary ideals throughout the Middle East. Those proposals were rejected outright.

It was, tellingly, in the same interview that Obama stated with a degree of pride (no doubt based on the notion that the best defence is a strong offence), that his withdrawal from his self-defined ‘red line’ in regard to Syria’s use of chemical weapons was a strategic rejection of ‘conventional wisdom’ and the ‘Washington playbook’. To make certain that the point was not lost on the general public, he refused to acknowledge the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin felt sufficiently confident that Washington would not react against Russia that led him to act against Ukraine by annexing the Crimean Peninsula and to conduct military operations designed to keep Bashar al Assad in power, or at least for as long as it suited Moscow, in Syria.

It was probably to counter any perceptions of weakness or inability to take practical action brought about by Obama’s statements that Vice President Joseph Biden felt constrained to note that ‘big nations don’t bluff’, Secretary of State John Kerry to declare that using military means to punish Bashar al Assad for using chemical weapons would be ‘directly related to our credibility and whether countries still believe the United States when it says something’, and which led Susan Rice to support Obama’s decision, saying ‘that the damage to America’s credibility would be serious and lasting’, when she learned of his decision to terminate air strikes in Syria and refer the matter to Congress. There was little, if any mention of the fact that Russia’s decision to move anti-aircraft missiles to Syria and the possibility of one of those bringing down a US aircraft, which could have led to conflict, limited or otherwise, between the US and Russia, could have led President Obama to blink first. It could have been that Obama recognised Putin’s willingness to use any assets he saw fit, such as his use of cruise missiles fired from the Mediterranean and Caspian Seas against targets in Syria, and did not wish to risk the war in Syria escalating into either a proxy or all-out war between Russia and the US that saw him refuse to link action to rhetoric.

It is very likely that, as a consequence of this inaction, the region will eventually see Iran attempt to settle accounts. It will probably seek to establish Shi’a Islam as the dominant regional force –   managed by Tehran, of course – and the diminution of Sunni Islam. It could use the cover of war crimes to eliminate Sunni fighters in the region and to ensure that its militias become the region’s pre-eminent fighting forces. Doing so would probably give Tehran an extended springboard in its ongoing struggle against Riyadh for dominance in the Middle East and to establish, for a long time to come, the primacy of Shi’ite Islam.

The blame for the Iranian theocracy’s ascendance and its deconstruction of the regional status quo can only be laid at the door of the Obama Administration. While it is probable that the Obama presidency will continue to be seen as one of the most cerebral in US history, its unwillingness or inability to match that depth of consideration with the practical reality of required supporting action will just as likely ensure that its Middle Eastern policy is perceived as a foreign policy failure.


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