He's Just Not That Into Us: The Supreme Leader's Resistance Strategy Expands

September 2, 2014
Iraqi women walk past a poster depicting images of Shi'ite Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at al-Firdous Square in Baghdad February 12, 2014. (Reuters)

Policy discussions in Washington continue to circle around the idea that somehow, the deep freeze in US-Iranian relations might thaw. Supposed common interests in Iraq, some say, should lead to cooperation and possibly even the renewal of diplomatic relations. Hypothesized success in the nuclear negotiations, others argue, could be another route. American intransigence is a common explanation for the continued cold war, but the reality is otherwise. The enmity in this relationship comes from Tehran, not Washington. Worse still, recent events in Iraq, Syria, and Gaza are increasing Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s determination to expand the anti-American and anti-Israeli strategy he calls “resistance.”  The tide of that resistance strategy will increase hostility and tension over the coming months, regardless of US policy.

Resistance is a fundamental component of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s domestic and international strategy and policy. It eschews interaction and compromise with the US and its allies and aims to withstand the pressure America and Israel supposedly exert on Iran and the Muslim world in general. Iran supports its own allies in this endeavor—groups in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, the Palestinian Territories, and elsewhere, which form what Tehran calls the “axis of resistance.” Supreme Leader Khamenei views this strategy of resistance as a fundamental component of regime security because he operates under the assumption that the US will always seek to subvert Iranian interests. According to recent analysis [i] done by Mehdi Khalaji, a Qom-trained Shi’a theologian and a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, on Khamenei’s decision making “the term ‘resistance’ has likewise become a key word in discourse on the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iran’s nuclear program, and other major foreign policy issues.”

The collapse of Iraq and Syria has increased Khamenei’s commitment to this strategy. The Supreme Leader and Iran’s senior military officials now include Shi’a militias in Iraq and ‘Alawite irregulars in Syria in their enumeration of resistance forces. They have united behind the assertion that the US created terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) and continues to support them as tools to exacerbate sectarian conflict. Tehran’s view of the Iraq conflict has been brought squarely into the resistance narrative and offers no prospect of defining any common interests there.

Khamenei and his subordinates have also announced their determination to expand the resistance in Gaza and into the West Bank as part of a larger effort to turn the regional tide against the US and Israel. It is still unclear which mechanisms Iran could use to “arm the West Bank” and whether Iranian support would come through partners like Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ) or other channels. But the tone of Iranian discourse is changing dynamically as regional events reshape the Middle East, and the “axis of resistance” continues to be a core concept guiding Iranian strategic thought, with which we must contend.

 

Paragon of Resistance

The resistance doctrine stems from the core conviction of the Iranian regime that the US will always seek to impose its will throughout the globe, with Israel as its instrument in the Levant. This conviction was explicitly part of the ideology that brought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power in 1979, and has remained central to regime theory and rhetoric ever since. Ayatollah Khomeini provided the original impetus for Iran’s claim to be the refuge and centerpiece for global resistance. During the Iran-Iraq war, Khomeini exemplified this inflexible notion of resistance when he rejected an Iraqi ceasefire offer in 1982, knowing that Iran had neither the material nor financial means to sustain an offensive campaign. Khomeini drove Iran to fight on for six more years, until he accepted a UN-proposed ceasefire in August 1988. Even then, Khomeini railed against his own capitulation: “Taking this decision is more deadly than drinking from a poisoned chalice,” even though he knew the agreement would ensure the survival of the regime.

Khomeini’s intense sentiments towards submission and defeat are sewn deep in the fabric of the regime. We can only understand the current messaging points echoed by the senior leadership about resistance and Iran’s intent to proliferate the movement through that prism.

 

Indoctrinated Strategy

The concept of resistance also appears to be deeply woven into the Supreme Leader’s own personality; it is the very essence of Khamenei’s foreign policy strategy. Khamenei’s interpretation of resistance assumes the inevitability of conflict between the US and those who resist dominance: “America’s policy towards [disobedient states] is that any possible tool must be used against them” He sees invigorating resistance movements as an effective way to allow Iran to project force, while countering US influence in the Middle East. Resistance is thus a means of deterring the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) considers resistance a comprehensive strategy; it is the primary framework for promoting and defending the Revolution, deterring and retaliating against adversaries (and their conspiracies), and facilitating Iran’s political influence and will. This framework seeks to deter enemy plots in the region.

The IRGC’s weekly publication, Sobh-e-Sadegh, published an editorial on the resistance, arguing that the West tends to interact with Iran through negotiations and economic pressure to gain submission, which would undermine the central ideological tenet of Iran’s resistance doctrine. Ceding ground in any of the pillars of the “axis of resistance” (Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria) is antithetical to Iran’s revolutionary discourse; the banner of resistance cannot be lost. Iran has defined the axis as a deterrence strategy and a symbol of its regional ambitions.

In 2013, Khamenei’s senior foreign policy advisor, Ali Akbar Velayati, said, “Syria is the golden ring of resistance,” and this past May, IRGC Brigadier General Hossein Hamedani, who was the Syrian operations lead from 2012 to 2014, reiterated that point: “Today Syria stands as a symbol of resistance against global arrogance [West.]”

The fall of Mosul to ISIS against the backdrop of Iran’s ongoing efforts in Syria prompted Qods Force Commander Qassem Soleimani’s senior advisor, Brigadier General Iraj Masjedi, to define Baghdad as the “connection to the Resistance and Hezbollah” that cannot be lost. Whether in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, or Gaza, Iran’s senior leadership is unanimously behind the idea of enduring pressure and resisting the West. Iran’s reaction to these crises elucidates the Supreme Leader’s ability to unify his subordinates behind a single policy shaped by an institutionalized worldview.

 

Operational Overstretch

Iran faces a plethora of internal economic and sociocultural challenges and a grave external threat in Iraq and Syria. Yet Tehran continues to search for avenues of intervention that serve the regime’s commitment to becoming the standard-bearer of the Islamic world, while expanding the “axis of resistance.” Recent statements from senior Iranian officials and IRGC commanders outline a concerted effort to strengthen the militants in Gaza and to expand the resistance front into the West Bank through material support.

The recent Israeli operations in Gaza have led Iran’s senior leadership to coalesce around Khamenei’s strategy to exploit the crisis—as is also the case in Iraq and Syria—in order to arm resistance movements in the West Bank. Such an effort would enhance Iran’s legitimacy as the leader of the resistance bloc and reinforce its ability to deter Israel.

Several former and present high-ranking IRGC commanders signed an open letter titled, “Million Man March from Karbala to Jerusalem” on July 23, pledging their unwavering commitment to “divine” resistance. (Karbala, Iraq, houses the shrine of the third Shi’a Imam, Hussein ibn Ali. Karbala and Jerusalem are likely noted in this letter for symbolic, rather than pragmatic reasons, in order to invoke emotional play on Shi’a passion and sentiment for the two revered Islamic holy sites. Prominent signatories included: IRGC Commander Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, IRGC Deputy Commander Brigadier General Hossein Salami, the Supreme Leader’s Senior Military Advisor Yahya Rahim Savafi and his Strategic Council on Foreign Policy Advisor Ahmad Vahidi, Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Shamkhani, and Expediency Discernment Council Secretary (EDC) Mohsen Rezaei. A week later, Quds Force Commander Soleimani—who has operational command of Iran’s efforts in Iraq—wrote a rare signed open letter reiterating the regime’s unified stance towards supporting Palestinian resistance against Israel:

We emphasize and insist on the victory of the Resistance, elevating it until victory and until the earth, sky, and the sea turn into hell for the Zionists. Murderers and mercenaries must know that we will not back down an instant from supporting the Resistance and defending the Palestinian people. All of the world must know that disarming the Resistance is a false belief and an imagination that will be unfulfilled. We advise weapons, blood, and munificence to defend humanity and the Islam that can be observed in Palestine.

Basij Organization Commander IRGC Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Naghdi urged the resistance groups in Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria to “sign a defense and security agreement to confront external threats, particularly the present danger of the Zionist regime.” The Supreme Leader delivered a speech saying: “We believe that the West Bank must be armed like Gaza… the firm and armed resistances of the Palestinians and its expansion to the West Bank is the only path of confronting this barbaric regime [Israel].” Khamenei’s foreign policy advisor, former Quds Force Commander Ahmad Vahidi, hammered this point home: “Arming the West Bank is the high strategy of the Supreme Leader.” Further signifying unanimity of command, Expediency Discernment Council Secretary (and former IRGC Commander and presidential candidate) Mohsen Rezaei wrote an open letter to Hamas’ military wing Qassem Brigades, which read in part: “Your fight continues and your needed arms and ammunition will reach you even if they come from underneath a rock.” This letter gives credence to the strategic aspect of arming the resistance; it also signifies Iran’s commitment to supply Palestine with material support beyond the confines of Gaza. Spreading the armed resistance movement provides Iran with a long-awaited opportunity to gain a more compelling foothold in the West Bank.   This rhetoric is overheated, and it is hard to see how Iran can follow through on it. But it is a noteworthy, emphatic, and explicit public declaration of intent that marks a departure from recent stated policy. It bears careful watching.

The specificity of the rhetoric is particularly odd at a moment when IRGC operational capabilities are precariously overstretched. ISIS has solidified a control zone through territorial gains from ar-Raqqa, Syria, into Iraq’s al-Anbar Province, further stretching Soleimani’s capacity to mobilize local support in the form of Shi’a militias. It would not seem to be an opportune time to be picking new fights, or even doubling down on old ones. Nevertheless, Iran has made its intent to expand the armed resistance in Palestine explicitly clear, through the Supreme Leader’s orders and reinforced by Soleimani’s impassioned remarks.

 

Looking Ahead

The Supreme Leader and senior officials and commanders of the IRGC have united rhetorically around the resistance doctrine as a comprehensive framework for advancing Iran’s regional ambitions. Recent Iranian statements have been unwavering in their pledge to expand the armed resistance in Palestine. Khamenei’s call to arm the West Bank has become the regime’s declaratory strategic priority. IRGC Deputy Commander Brigadier General Hossein Salami underlined this critical messaging point during a televised address on August 10, “The West Bank will certainly … enter the field of combat.” Senior officials vociferously support the resistance and its expansion, often touting its success in Syria and Lebanon as a great act of ingenuity, rather than the Pyrrhic victory it actually appears to be. The resistance strategy must be seen as succeeding, even when it fails.

The Islamic Republic has forcefully rejected any grounds for interaction, let alone cooperation and compromise with the US to address the ongoing crises. One of the Supreme Leader’s most trusted friends and military advisors, Armed Forces General Staff Chief Major General Hassan Firouzabadi hammered this point home when he said “Cooperation between Iran and America will never happen and has no meaning.” Iraq and Syria are existential security issues for Khamenei and, despite being hampered by a struggling economy as well as Soleimani’s operational overstretch, Iran’s senior leadership continues to manipulate and encourage political instability in Palestine by seeking to expand material support for Hamas and the PIJ. Iran will continue to implement the resistance doctrine to safeguard its interests, meaning it will remain a staunch supporter of the armed resistance in Gaza and its expansion into the West Bank. The US and its allies cannot simply dismiss Iranian discourse in the interests of wishful thinking. These overt and calculated statements made by Iran’s current leadership are rooted in mistrust and enmity towards the US and Israel, which is only deepening.

 

[i] Mehdi Khalaji, “Tightening the Reigns: How Khamenei Makes Decisions,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, March 2014. Available: http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Documents/pubs/PolicyFocus126_Khalaji.pdf