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Is it still possible to coexist with the Tehran regime?

Paris recently hosted a massive rally organized by the Iranian opposition and attended by many international political figures. The timing was particularly significant, given the historical and exceptional current state of affairs in the Middle East and the unprecedented tense relations between its countries.

As expected on an occasion like this, the main stress in most positions expressed by Iranian, Middle Eastern and Western speakers was that it is impossible for the Tehran regime to change, and all attempts to make it moderate its stances are doomed to fail.

Indeed, gambling on the “rationality” of Iran’s leaders and regarding them as “not suicidal” — to quote former President Barack Obama in his marketing pitch for the nuclear deal — are proving meaningless every day. Despite Daesh’s atrocities and systematic destruction wherever it goes, achieved by the tacit cooperation of players benefiting from it, there are two clear realities.

First, Iran’s sectarian militias, and those supported by Tehran via its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), do not differ much from Daesh in terms of brutal exterminatory practices justified by alleged religious legitimacy.

Second, there is not much difference between diplomatically clad extremism as reflected in Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and brazenly militaristic and sectarian extremism as expressed in the gung-ho speeches of IRGC leaders such as Mohammad Ali Jaafari and Qasem Soleimani, as well as their militia henchmen in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Syria. All traces of “difference” disappear when positions being explained pertain to the Gulf, the Fertile Crescent and Yemen.

Iran’s ambition to achieve regional supremacy did not start with Khomeini’s 1979 revolution, when it launched its campaign of “exporting the Islamic revolution,” followed soon by its diligent outbidding on the path of “liberating Palestine.”

Under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Iran was in 1955 a founding member of the Baghdad Pact along with the UK, Turkey, Pakistan and Iraq under US auspices, before Iraq withdrew, resulting in it being renamed the Central Treaty Organization. Later, the shah made no secret of his ambition of Iran becoming “the policeman of the Gulf” since it was the most populous country in the region.

But there is a big difference between a regional leader’s ambition to enhance his nation’s influence based on his belief in its civilization and capabilities, and a theocratic regime’s aggressive insistence on “exporting” its political and religious “legitimacy” to neighboring countries by force and conspiring to overthrow their governments via intrigue and sectarian incitement.

Since 1979, “exporting” the revolution has been a cornerstone of the Khomeini regime, which is followed by his successor, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. This project suffered a setback during the Iran-Iraq war, which was ended by the international community. Checking Iran’s ambitions at that time was temporary, and they were never really eradicated because Tehran continued to build subservient sectarian military organizations throughout the region.

In Paris, thousands of Iranians exiled by the regime answered the question loud and clear, as did millions of Iranians at home before them: No. If this is what Iranians believe, how can Arabs disagree?

Eyad Abu Shakra

The first was Lebanon’s Hezbollah, initially under the cloak of Islamic Amal. It was soon followed by Iraqi Shiite militias that had fought with Iran’s army against Iraq’s. Many leaders of the latter today are the de facto leaders of Iraq. Noteworthy here is that the late Hafez Assad’s regime in Syria also sided with Iran during that war.

Iran’s then-ambassador to Damascus, Ali Akbar Mohtashamipur (who later became interior minister), was entrusted with founding Hezbollah in Lebanon. Tehran’s efforts were not limited to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, later expanding to include Yemen via the Houthis, and Bahrain via mullahs who had no qualms about historical Iranian claims over their country.

Iran did not concentrate its efforts solely on Shiite organizations. It achieved a breakthrough with the Sunnis, namely in the occupied Palestinian territories. This farsighted strategy had two aims: To give credibility to Tehran’s slogans about “liberating Palestine,” and to allow it to found, arm and support Shiite militias without being accused of sectarian discrimination.

This is exactly what has happened. Under the banner of “Islamic unity,” Iran has been bankrolling Shiite and Sunni groups that are acting as effective vehicles for its propaganda and defenders of its policies and adventures.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah recently said: “A war Israel launches against Lebanon and Syria will never be limited to these two arenas, but will open the door before thousands of fighters (Shiite of course) from Iraq, Yemen, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries in the world to join Syria (the Assad regime) and the Resistance (Hezbollah).”

He is prepared to invite — if an invitation is even needed — the IRGC to fight on Lebanese soil without bothering to consult with a government in which his pro-Tehran party is represented.

Nasrallah’s declaration came after “reassurances” by Iran’s Defense Minister Hussein Dehghan that “Iraq is now a part of Iran,” and the infamous proclamation by former Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi that “Iran now controls four Arab capital cities (Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa).”

Meanwhile, Iran has been busy, directly and via its militia henchmen, in justifying its war of sectarian cleansing that it has been waging in Syria since the 2011 uprising, as well as in Iraq. The justifications include fighting takfiri groups such as Al-Qaeda, Al-Nusra Front and Daesh. But the fact that there were old understandings and dealings between Iran and Al-Qaeda is well known, which is why the terrorist group never attacked Iranian targets.

More recently, Daesh rarely fought against the Assad regime, instead attacking its opponents, namely the Free Syrian Army. Moreover, the regime’s cross-border smuggling of terrorists in order to harass US troops in Iraq is well documented by Iraqi authorities, as are extremist fighters’ “escapes” from Iraqi prisons to join Daesh in Syria.

Now that Iran has exploited and benefited from Daesh’s destruction of several Sunni Syrian and Iraqi cities, is it possible to coexist with the Tehran regime? In Paris, thousands of Iranians exiled by the regime answered the question loud and clear, as did millions of Iranians at home before them: No. If this is what Iranians believe, how can Arabs disagree?

• Eyad Abu Shakra is managing editor of Asharq Al-Awsat, where this article was originally published.