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The Shiite Elephant in the Room

Setting the Stage

The Islamic Republic of Iran holds a unique position in relationship to the US and the Middle East and in order to discuss those relationships, one needs some background details. Iran is one of four nations on the US State Department list of State Sponsors of Terror. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in January 2013, “The United States does not negotiate with terrorists.”1 But the US has been negotiating with Iran on nuclear energy and nuclear weapons issues since 2006.2 Iran has a population of over 80 million people, of which 95% are Shiite and 53% are Persian.3 The Iranian Revolutionary Guard unit, Quds, organized Hezbollah in Lebanon in the early 1980s as a terror group which later would evolve into the preeminent political and military force in Lebanon.

For intelligence studies and strategic intelligence, the key focus on Iran should be the bifurcated government. Based on the Iranian constitution, there is a secular government organization linked with a religious government organization. The political reality is that the religious entity dominates and Iran is, in fact, a theocracy. The importance of this fact is that geostrategic decisions ultimately will have a foundation in the Shiite dogma.4 Persian nationalism reinforces the Shiite geostrategic goals of establishing a Shiite arc of influence ranging from Iran to the Mediterranean Sea as well as realizing Iranian dominance in the Persian Gulf. Lurking behind all this is the cornerstone of Shiite belief: the return of the 12th Imam.

What a Difference ISIL Makes

The Sunni jihadist group ISIL’s successes in Syria and Iraq have radically altered the strategic landscape for Iran. Iran had experienced a serious setback in Syria due to fallout from the Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war. Iran attempted to stabilize the threat to the Assad regime by ordering Hezbollah to intervene militarily, but the influx of Syrian refugees to neighboring Lebanon changed the Shi’ia-majority demographic. The sanctions imposed by the West were crippling both to Iran’s economy and nuclear weapons program. Now, Iran is watching as the parts of Iraq and Syria critical to the keystone plan for the Shiite arc of influence fall under the control of Sunni jihadists.

However, as true religious zealots, the Iranian theocracy holds fast to the Shiite vision and goals. Patience and pragmatism appear to be the guiding principles for Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini. The US dilemma in dealing with ISIL opened a door for Iran to move opportunistically in the face of a dire threat to the Iranian nation and their strategic objectives. Iran seems to understand US politics, basing their actions on the presumption that the US will have to take some action to counter ISIL. Iran now has new options in the nuclear negotiations and in the ongoing sectarian war between the Sunnis and the Shi’ia. Iran has reinforced control over the Shiite militias in Iraq, and teams from Iran’s Quds force are operating throughout the country. Iran views the US ‘coalition’ air campaign in Iraq and Syria as a “Shiite Air Force” and a de facto ally in Iraq and benefactor to the Assad regime. Iran appears to sense that the U.S. needs a foreign policy ‘victory’ and has suddenly taken a harder line in the nuclear negotiations to extract concessions. In addition, the Shiite Houthi tribe in Yemen, which is supported by Iran, has made recent successes against the Sunni-controlled central government. This appears to be no accident in timing since it distracts Saudi Arabia while expanding Iranian influence. The US intelligence community is facing a rapidly changing environment for strategic intelligence; analysts providing the intelligence studies must look at available data in the context of both the near-term and long-term consequences. For example, concessions made now on the Iranian nuclear program in order to gain a short-term advantage could become the precursor to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East in the future.

Dangerous Times: Now and the Future

Intelligence education faces a challenge to ensure that students are grounded in the fundamental principles and equipped to deal with a fast-changing set of uncertainties. While tactics involve the present, strategic intelligence considers the future. Intelligence studies should bridge that gap between current and future policies. Online education can address that need by teaching students the theory and pragmatism of realpolitik. Select schools offer faculties with academic credentials that are buttressed by real world experience.

1. US State Department. Retrieved: www.state.gov
2. History of Official Proposals on the Iranian Nuclear Issue. (2014). Retrieved: www.armscontrol. Org
3. CIA FactBook. (2014). Retrieved: www.cia.gov
4. Friedland, (2014). Iranian Regional Hegemony. The Clarion Project. Retrieved: www.clarionporject.org

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