Iran expands regional 'empire' ahead of nuclear deal

Iranian Revolutionary Guard Commander Qassem Soleimani walks near an armoured vehicle at the frontline during offensive operations against Islamic State militants in the town of Tal Ksaiba in Salahuddin province March 8, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer

By Samia Nakhoul 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. In Beirut he is photographed praying at the grave of Jihad Mughniyeh, son of the late commander of the IRGC-backed Hezbollah paramilitary group. Jihad was killed in Syria in January. 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." GAME CHANGER? 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. This month, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry assured Saudi leaders there would be no “grand bargain” with Tehran attached to any deal. Yet in a news conference at which Kerry acknowledged that Soleimani was involved in Tikrit, his host, Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal, almost exploded. “The situation in Tikrit is a prime example of what we’re worried about,” said Prince Saud. “Iran is taking over Iraq.” That is why, regional analysts say, it is not so much the prospective nuclear deal that is panicking the Gulf and its Sunni allies such as Egypt, but what a U.S.-Iran rapprochement may bring. Sultan al-Qassemi, a commentator in the United Arab Emirates, says: “The Iranian deal is a game-changer for the region and I think it is going to encourage Iran to pursue an even more assertive foreign policy. “This deal is the grand bargain Kerry is denying it is. It is giving Iran carte blanche in exchange for empty promises. Iran is on the ascendant. Iran has the winning hand in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen." 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.” SECTARIAN FIRESTORM REKINDLED The schism between Sunnis and Shi'ites dates from shortly after the dawn of Islam 14 centuries ago. In modern times, this often translated into rivalry between the Wahhabi fundamentalism of Sunni Saudi Arabia and the Shi’ite theocracy of Iran. But the overthrow of Saddam's Sunni minority rule by the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 and its replacement by a Shi'ite Islamist government under the sway of Iran has rekindled a sectarian firestorm. The Saudis and their allies have backed Sunni forces, including rebels fighting to topple Assad. Riyadh formally backs mainstream rebels in this increasingly Sunni-Shi'ite stand-off, but support from Gulf states and nationals is believed to have reached jihadi groups. That is certainly an alibi used by Shi'ites to justify intervention. In Syria, when Assad seemed likely to succumb to the mainly Sunni rebellion two years ago, Iran deployed its Lebanese ally Hezbollah. Soleimani and the al-Quds brigade, created in 1980 to export Iran’s Islamic Revolution, patched together a network of loyalist militias that is now the backbone of Syrian rule. In Iraq, after the IS eruption in mid-2014, the al-Quds commander put together a similar coalition of Shi’ite militias, first to defend Baghdad and the south and now to carry the fight northwards into jihadi strongholds such as Tikrit. His allies in Iran, meanwhile, such as Tehran MP Ali Reza Zakani – like Soleimani, close to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – boast they have three Arab capitals in the bag, Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut, with Sanaa soon to follow. According to Iran’s Rasa new agency, Zakani said that “had Hajj Qassem Soleimani not intervened in Iraq, Baghdad would have fallen, and the same applies to Syria; without the will of Iran, Syria would have fallen”. Describing events in Yemen as a “natural extension” of the Iranian revolution, Zakani predicted 14 of Yemen's 20 provinces would soon be under Houthi control. “The Yemeni revolution will not be confined to Yemen alone” he said. It would extend into Saudi territories – a reference not only to the kingdom’s long, porous border with Yemen but the Shi'ite Eastern Province where Saudi Arabia’s richest oil deposits lie. 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." While the Obama administration seeks to reassure Arab allies that it remains committed to them, analysts say Washington's priority is to stop Iran developing an atomic bomb and halt IS expansion. "Obama believes that reaching a nuclear deal with Iran could be his foreign policy legacy. The Americans are not looking at the deal with Iran in terms of its regional impact," says Fawaz Gerges, Middle East expert at the London School of Economics. "The U.S. deal with Iran would deeply intensify a new cold war that has been unfolding between Saudi Arabia and its allies on one hand and Iran. It would likely pour more gasoline on the raging fires in the Arab heartland." (Additional reporting by William Maclean,; Babak Dehghanpisheh and Sam Wilkin; Editing by Giles Elgood)