Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger put it best: “If Iran wants to have a place at the table in the international community, it has to start acting like a county instead of a cause.”
Whether it’s propping up Hezbollah suicide bomb assaults on Israel, sending troops to bolster Baghdadi forces in Iraq, waging a proxy war against Saudi Arabia in Yemen, supplying guns to militant cells in Bahrain or arming Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria, Tehran is out for its share of the Middle Eastern pie, and its biggest bargaining chip is sponsoring war and terrorism.
This all comes at a heavy economic and humanitarian cost for a country that is already feeling a financial pinch from the decline in international oil prices (oil and gas make up 82 percent of Iran’s total exports).
According to Iran’s own Martyrs Foundation, at least 2,100 Iranian combatants have been killed in Syria in the last six years.
But Tehran continues to ratchet up its military adventurism, pursuit of ballistic missiles and regional provocations.
In May, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps sent fast-attack vessels close to a U.S. Navy ship in the Strait of Hormuz and test-fired a pair of Russian-made Fateh-110 missiles.
In fact, Iran has conducted at least 14 ballistic missile launches since the nuclear agreement was signed in July 2015, according to the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies think-tank.
Yet despite having been put “on notice” by the U.S. government, Tehran is advancing ahead full-throttle with its willful global aggression.
So what is Iran’s endgame?
Iran is after power, regional power, based on a Shi’ite theophilosophy that has zero tolerance for any form of deviation, including — or maybe especially — Sunnism and its Saudi-sponsored Wahhabism doctrine.
Ever since its establishment by a popular revolution in 1979, the Islamic Republic of Iran has focused its entire foreign policy on the export of ideology, not diplomatic cooperation.
Iran’s ultimate goal is to export a theocratic Shi’ite Middle East revolution, and to counteract Saudi Arabia, which is out to conquer the same region through voluntary and not-so-voluntary Sunni evangelical conversion.
It is an uphill battle for Iran, since a full 80 percent of the world’s Moslem population is Sunni.
Of course, Iran has an ace up its sleeve in the form of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that it signed with China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States to roll back its nuclear ambitions in exchange for a softening of trade restrictions.
But Riyadh — once the darling of the West — is not anxious to relinquish its position as head honcho in the Middle East, and has consequently punished Tehran by creating a global oil glut.
Meanwhile, Iran’s release from economic sanctions last year has allowed it to assume a new pivotal role in the international community, that of a potential regional power broker and a key fighter against Islamic State (I.S.) terrorism.
But in order to cash in on this new status as regional superpower, Iran’s mullahs are going to have to leave their Quran-thumping ideologies at the door and settle down to the real work of global statesmanship and multilateral diplomacy.
In the past, Tehran has advanced its interests by sponsoring militias, its principal weapon of influence.
But now Iran can no longer focus on ridding the Middle East of what it considers heretical Sunnis, and must concentrate instead on finding common ground with its fellow Muslims in order to work toward regional political stability.
If Tehran insists on maintaining its policy of fueling social and religious divisions to the detriment of regional cooperation, and refuses to walk back its assertive influence in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Syria, the world will never take it seriously as a real player in the global arena.
As Kissinger said, Iran will have to stop acting like a religiously-motivated ideology and adopt a serious, secular and coherent foreign policy that is aimed at peace and cohesion, not war and conquest.
Only then can Tehran assume an adult role as a legitimate, constructive regional power.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at [email protected]