Iran has chosen its way of war but the West failed to see it

What Tehran doesn’t do is give up its gains, IISS adviser says

FILE- In this Sept. 18, 2016 file photo released by an official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, center, attends a meeting in Tehran, Iran. The long shadow war between Israel and Iran has burst into the open in recent days, with Israel allegedly striking Iran-linked targets as far away as Iraq and crash-landing two drones in Lebanon. These incidents, along with an air raid in Syria that Israel says thwarted an imminent Iranian drone attack, have raised tensions at a particularly fraught time. Israel said Soleimani masterminded the alleged drone attack. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP, File)
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The defining trait of Iranian statecraft has been the extension of its tentacles across the Middle East despite all efforts to coax the country in from the cold.

John Raine, senior adviser for geopolitical due diligence at the International Institute of Strategic Studies, warns there is nothing inadvertent in Iran’s position as the pressure from sanctions and containment policies have taken aim at the wrong issues.

In particular Iran’s promotion of allies from Hezbollah in Lebanon to the Houthis in Yemen has granted Tehran a strategic windfall.

"This is a chosen way of war for the Iranians, it has not come about by a series of accidents," Mr Raine told The National.

“Iran’s using an array of unconventional techniques, one end of which is taking hostages plus other unacceptable state policies, and other end is fighting through third parties.

"We have fixed on Iran's ballistic missiles and nuclear but we have not fixed on this which, in theatres of conflict, is their main effort."

Since the bruising experience of the Iraq-Iran war, Tehran has been determined to find alternatives to state-on-state conflict while maintaining an aggressive regional outlook.

With US President Donald Trump walking away from the 2015 nuclear deal and imposing a policy of maximum pressure through economic sanctions, the question of how Iran has stayed its course is at the top of the global diplomatic agenda.

The IISS in London set out to provide a comprehensive dossier on how Iran’s approach was working despite its weak international position.

Breaking down its regional intervention, Mr Raine said the Iranians had proven to be highly adaptive.

In Lebanon, neither Hezbollah or Iran have sought to take over the state, despite the movement's strong position.

“What enabled them to make judgments, like to know when they needed to double down or pull back, was closeness to the people they are working with,” Mr Raine said.

“What they don’t do is give up their gains.”

The intervention in Syria allowed Iran to proclaim it was defeating ISIS and protecting Shiite shrines, but it was also keeping its supply routes open to Hezbollah and gaining a “firing base” on Israel-occupied Golan.

“In those five, six years they were able to prove quite a lot,” he said of the Syria intervention.

“What they didn’t achieve, of course, was they didn’t get the sanctions lifted. They didn’t get Iran rehabilitated.

"In the cold logic of developing and consolidating power they did well. In the warmer logic of making friends with people and getting back into the international community, they didn’t.”

Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, meanwhile, Iran has gained unrivalled influence within its neighbour.

To Mr Raine the “ascendancy” now held by Iran is cyclical.

“Iran temporarily enjoys the strategic advantage,” he said. “Our refusal to acknowledge this is a capability is the difficulty here.”

Where there has been pushback, Iran has retreated.

“We point to positive examples of where closing down the space has been effective, like Bahrain,” Mr Raine said.