In the past few years, bombings and assassinations have taken place inside Iran
that have killed scores of people. These attacks are almost certainly directed
by Israeli, Saudi and United States intelligence services which are pressing
Iran to open its nuclear research facilities to international inspection.
In recent weeks, Iran has decried terrorism around the world (somewhat
paradoxically, to be sure), put up a clumsy plot to assassinate a Saudi
ambassador, boasted of its missile strength, and briefly seized the British
Embassy in Tehran - an act done not by students as with the US Embassy in 1979,
but by toughs of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
The increasingly aggressive nature of these responses suggest the rising ire of
the Iranian government, the political ascendancy of the IRGC, and most
ominously, the likelihood of sharper
hostilities in the region. Iran is signaling the possibility of violent
responses well beyond the quotidian rocket attacks on Israel from Hamas and
These could include encouraging Shi'ite uprisings in the Gulf, attacking US
personnel in the region, and embarking on its own wave of bombings against
Israel and its US and Saudi allies.
The Shi'ites in the region
The Gulf region has a large Shi'ite population, many of whom constitute
majorities in countries ruled by Sunnis. The Shi'ites complain of
discrimination in employment and education and seethe at official policies
encouraging foreign Sunnis to immigrate into the country to reduce the Shi'ite
Such complaints were oft heard in the Arab Spring demonstrations in Bahrain,
where on little if any evidence they were judged acts of Iranian subterfuge and
harshly repressed. Similar complaints in Shi'ite parts of Saudi Arabia were
tamped down last March before they could coalesce into a movement. A legitimate
indigenous civil rights movement was squelched and this has piqued the
interests of Iranian intelligence.
Yemen, approximately 50% Shi'ite, is amid an uncertain transition to a new
president, which is not the same as a new regime. Saudi Arabia and other Sunni
powers have negotiated President Ali Abdallah Saleh’s departure but Yemenis
suspect an Egyptian-style ploy and the Shi'ites may be open to Iranian
This is especially so in Yemen’s north, which abuts with a Shi'ite region of
Saudi Arabia and which already has an armed Shi'ite movement. These Houthi
fighters operate along the border with Saudi Arabia and occasionally engage
Saudi forces. Iran may seek to encourage the Houthis to expand into Saudi
territory and build ties with Shi'ites there.
Shi'ites in the Eastern province of Saudi Arabia have renewed their
demonstrations against discrimination. Whether they have done so under Iranian
influence or as a result of encouraging events in Libya and Syria is uncertain.
Saudi intelligence, however, will have no doubt of IRGC’s hand, nor will they
need evidence to form their conclusion and act upon it.
A Shi'ite uprising in Yemen or Saudi Arabia is unlikely, but so is a judicious
response from Riyadh to any unrest that does come about. This in turn may only
lead to more covert actions in Iran and harsher oppression in Saudi Arabia.
United States troops are scheduled to be out of Iraq in four weeks, which maybe
be seen as making them an unlikely target. Alternately, they can be seen as one
that should be struck soon. It might be remembered that the last Soviet convoy
that exited Afghanistan in 1989 suffered attacks until it crossed into the
USSR, though the withdrawal had United Nations sanctioning. Beyond the first of
the year, there will be US Embassy staff, training missions, and clandestine
Another response in Iraq would be against the Sunni forces of the central
region which have been waging a bombing campaign on Shi'ite targets -
government and civilian - for several months now. The Shi'ite have endured this
campaign with remarkable and uncharacteristic forbearance, leading some
analysts to think a harsh response may be in the offing once the US ground
forces are no longer in position to intervene.
The Sunni forces are likely influenced by Saudi intelligence, which seeks to
block a feared Shi'ite axis stretching into Lebanon and to establish an
autonomous Sunni region in Iraq if not a wholly independent one, perhaps
adjoined to a new Sunni-dominated Syria. The potential for sectarian warfare
spilling over into Syria and Lebanon is clear and ominous.
US forces in Afghanistan and the Gulf
Iran already gives limited support, in the form of explosives and training, to
Afghan insurgents, including the Taliban. This is not out of ideological
affinity or broad strategic interests. Iran despises the Taliban as an
intolerant Sunni movement that slaughtered tens of thousands of Shi'ites and
killed a number of Iranian diplomats as well.
In the latest atrocity to inflict Afghan, 58 people were killed on Tuesday in a
suicide bombing at a crowded Kabul shrine on the most important day in the
Shi'ite calendar. At least 150 people were wounded when the bomb exploded in a
throng of worshippers, including women and children, in a street between the
Abul Fazl shrine and the Kabul River. A second bomb, which killed four people
in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, also targeted pilgrims on their way to
mark the holy festival of Ashura.
In this case, Sunni militants from Pakistani group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi al-Alami
claimed responsibility in a phone call to Radio Mashaal, a Pashto-language
station set up by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. The group has close links to
Iran works against the Taliban as well by supporting development programs in
the north and west where Tajik and Hazara peoples have long had cultural and
political ties to Iran and deep hatred of the Taliban.
Nonetheless, Iran may increase support for the insurgents as a means of
punishing the US and deterring further attacks inside Iran, especially on its
nuclear facilities. Iran can provide more weapons to insurgents, possibly to
include shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles such as the Stingers given to the
Iran purchased a few Stingers from the mujahideen back in the eighties and
copied them, with unclear success. The importance of the Stingers in the Soviet
war has been greatly overstated in Central Intelligence Agency cant (Soviet
pilots altered their tactics and avoided the missiles) but their use in
Afghanistan would be unsettling in Washington.
Iran could venture to deploy Qods Force troops into Afghanistan to destroy aid
projects, ambush troops, and interdict International Security Assistance Force
convoys coming into the southern part of the country from Chaman and Spin
Boldak in western Pakistan, not far from Iranian soil. Such convoys are of
course already subject to intermittent stoppages by the Pakistani army.
The US's present antagonisms with the Pakistani generals offer an opening for
Iranian diplomacy. Iran could offer more favorable terms for gas and pipeline
projects and support for Pakistani interests and aspirations in Afghanistan. In
return, Pakistan could further restrict foreign troop convoys into Afghanistan.
The US naval presence in the Persian Gulf offers numerous possibilities. The
Fifth Fleet facilities in Bahrain are within missile range, at least one
carrier group is always inside the Gulf, and support ships routinely transit
the Straits of Hormuz. All would be vulnerable to Iranian aircraft, missiles,
and ships - especially if "swarming" tactics were used. Pentagon war-gaming of
such attacks has reportedly been less than assuring.
Even a brief skirmish in the Gulf would send oil prices soaring on world
markets, perhaps 15% in a day or two. Many economies would be adversely
affected and world opinion might not side with Iran's opponents in affixing
blame. Paradoxically, soaring prices would be a boon for Tehran.
Non-diplomatic efforts to press Iran to abandon its nuclear program have thus
far been unsuccessful. They are getting out of control and are leading to
violent retaliation and regional conflict.
The efforts are also firming government and popular support for nuclear
research. They are also solidifying IRGC power in the state and changing Iran
from a theocracy with a zealous military to a military-dominated bureaucracy
with a clerical body legitimizing it. And militaries often prefer violent
actions to diplomatic ones.
Brian M Downing is a political/military analyst and author of The
Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and
Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at
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