BEIRUT (Reuters) – With Iran moving closer to a deal with world powers to constrain its nuclear program in return for an end to sanctions, Arab analysts and leaders are focused more on how Tehran is working unconstrained to tighten its grip on Arab states, from Iraq to Lebanon, and Syria to Yemen.
The man behind what some see as an attempt to create a new Persian and Shi’ite “empire” on Arab land is Major General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the al-Quds brigade of the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
Since he emerged from the shadows last autumn, Soleimani seems to be omnipresent on the battlefields of the Middle East.
Photos of Soleimani, 60, almost an invisible man until the Sunni jihadis of Islamic State (IS) overran cities in northern and central Iraq last year, are now everywhere.
He is seen directing operations in the battle to recapture from IS the Sunni city of Tikrit, birthplace of Saddam Hussein. He is snapped in Syria offering condolences on the killing of a relative of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president he has helped cling to power during four years of war.
Meanwhile, the heterodox Shi’ite Houthi movement in Yemen has seized power in the capital, Sanaa, to Iranian acclaim and the alarm of Sunni Arab states such as neighboring Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional rival.
Such is Soleimani’s personal sway that a Syrian opposition website has put up a spoof election poster saying: “Vote for Qassem Soleimani, President of Syria.”
Iran may be serious about a nuclear deal that ends its pariah status and the crippling sanctions. But it has been maximizing its strength across the Middle East and, because Iranian forces and allied militias are spearheading the fight against IS in Iraq and Syria, Sunni Arab leaders believe the United States will do nothing to stop this.
Riad Kahwaji, head of the Dubai-based INEGMA think tank, warned of “all-out sectarian war” between Sunnis and Shi’ites.
“The events in Iraq, Syria and Yemen indicate that Iran is on a massive offensive under the cover of a U.S.-led war on terrorism, to gain strategic depth that has extended its areas of control all the way to the Red Sea and the Mediterranean.”
FOUR CAPITALS IN THE BAG?
John Jenkins, until last year British ambassador to Saudi Arabia and now with the International Institute of Strategic Studies, suggests US inattention to the region’s concerns is worrying.
“Already we see Iranian officials saying that they control four Arab capitals, and we have seen Houthi delegations travel to Tehran and Baghdad. This plays into the Gulf Arab narrative that they are being sold down the river,” Jenkins says.
“The U.S. presence in the region is as strong as its ever been, but the Gulf Arabs’ questions are about the Western will to act. They’ve seen examples in Lebanon and Syria of US inaction. And Yemen is the tip of the spear as far as the Saudis are concerned. Behind Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen stands Iran.”
Full article: Iran Expands Regional ‘Empire’ Ahead of Nuclear Deal (Washington Free Beacon)