A poster showing Judge Tarek Bitar, who is investigating last year's deadly blast at the Beirut port, is set on fire by supporters of the Shiite Hezbollah and Amal groups during a protest in front of the Justice Palace, in Beirut, Lebanon, on Thursday. Photo by Jamal Eddine/UPI | License Photo
Oct. 18 (UPI) -- Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, has made no secret of his wish to dominate the Middle East.
His policy of aggressive expansionism has seen him spend over $100 billion backing Bashar al-Assad's bloody civil war in Syria, approaching its 11th year. He has funded, supplied and controlled the brutal Shi'ia militias in neighboring Iraq, fashioning them into the ruthless Hashd al-Shabi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), whose pro-Iranian political wing has just won seats in the recent parliamentary elections.
He has funded and supplied arms and missiles to the Houthi rebels in Yemen since the civil war began in that country in 2014. He has nurtured and financed the terrorist Hezbollah in Lebanon, deploying them as a proxy army in Syria and elsewhere in the region.
It is little wonder that Khamenei and his acolytes now claim to control three Arab capitals, embracing Damascus, Baghdad and Sanaa and they would dearly love to add Beirut to that list.
The massive explosion that destroyed the port of Beirut in August 2020, leaving 218 dead and thousands injured, sent shockwaves across the Middle East. It soon emerged that the Lebanese authorities had known that over 2,700 tons of highly combustible ammonium nitrate had been stored in a giant warehouse at the port for years.
But typically, responsibility for the ticking time bomb had been passed down the line. The military, politicians, civil servants and judges all refused to accept responsibility, until finally the prime minister ordered the warehouse door to be sealed shut as a safety precaution. Unfortunately, no one told the welders who were sent to seal the door what was inside.
In the 15 months that have passed since that fateful day, Lebanon has become a virtual basket case. The Lebanese economy and currency have collapsed. The country now has the third highest rate of inflation in the world, worse even than Zimbabwe and Venezuela. Electricity blackouts, previously unheard of in this oil-rich nation, are now a common feature, driving business and industry out of the country. The existence of large fields of unexploited hydrocarbon reserves in the eastern Mediterranean have long been known, but political paralysis in Beirut has prevented their exploitation.
Sensing that America has lost interest in the Middle East following its calamitous withdrawal from Afghanistan and pledge to withdraw all combat troops from Iraq, the Iranians have leapt upon the opportunity to consolidate their grip on Lebanon. The mullahs' regime has begun sending convoys of tankers filled with diesel to Beirut and they have offered to build two new power plants. Any threat to their hegemony will be ruthlessly put down by their Hezbollah allies.
Indeed, shooting and mortar fire reminiscent of the 1975 civil war erupted in Beirut last week, when protesters demanding the removal of a judge investigating last year's explosion were attacked. The demonstration had been organized by Hezbollah and they immediately accused the Saudi-backed Christian Lebanese Forces party of mounting the assault, in which six Shi'ites were killed. The eruption of a new civil conflict involving Lebanon's three diverse communities, Shi'ia, Sunni and Christian, would play directly into the hands of the Iranian regime.
When civil war erupted in Iraq, it was largely instigated by Tehran. The Iranian regime had encouraged their puppet Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, to crack down on the minority Sunni population, igniting a backlash that was quickly exploited by Islamic State. In 2014, ISIS surged into Iraq, quickly capturing around 40% of its territory. The Iranian regime then seized their opportunity.
Claiming to help their Iraqi neighbors and the West in the fight against ISIS, the mullahs sent the terrorist chief of their extra-territorial Quds Force -- Gen. Qassem Soleimani, to lead the fight against the insurgents. Commanding the Iraqi Shi'ite militias, Soleimani oversaw the genocidal massacre of tens of thousands of Iraqi Sunnis in the ancient cities of Fallujah, Ramadi and Mosul, leaving smoking ruins in his wake.
Soleimani and the Iraqi leader of Hashd al-Shabi, Abu Mehdi Mohandes, were killed by an American drone strike ordered by U.S. President Donald Trump, at Baghdad Airport on Jan. 3, 2020. This caused a huge setback for the Iranian regime. Combined with their own collapsing economy under tough American sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed 460,000 people, there is rising unrest in Iran.
In a bid to control the 80 million Iranian population and prevent another nationwide uprising similar to what occurred in November 2019, Khamenei shoe-horned his henchman, Ebrahim Raisi, into the presidency, following sham elections in June.
Raisi is known as the Butcher of Tehran, for his alleged involvement in the massacre of more than 30,000 political prisoners, mostly supporters of the opposition People's Mojahedin of Iran (PMOI/MEK) in 1988. In his previous post as chief of the judiciary, Raisi is accused of directing the killing of 1,500 young protesters during the 2019 nationwide uprising. Thousands more were injured, and many were arrested, tortured and executed. Khamenei clearly believes that a ruthless, hard-line president will enable Iran to re-establish its supremacy in the Middle East and flex its muscles worldwide.
Adding Beirut to Iran's list of supplicant Middle East capitals, is clearly the next objective for Khamenei and his new fanatical president. Last week's armed clashes in the Lebanese capital, in which two Hezbollah militants were among those killed, will lead to renewed support for the terrorist Shi'ia militant group from Tehran.
The mullahs will urge Hezbollah to retaliate. They know that the group's advanced training regimen for other pro-Iranian Shi'ia militias across the Middle East is of key importance to their own survival. Hezbollah's expansive illicit financing actions, combined with its procurement, intelligence, cyber and disinformation activities, have turned it into a key regional player acting at Iran's behest. For the Iranian regime, using Hezbollah to turn Lebanon into a client-state is a primary goal.
Struan Stevenson is coordinator of the Campaign for Iran Change. He was a member of the European Parliament representing Scotland (1999-2014), president of the Parliament's Delegation for Relations with Iraq (2009-14) and chairman of the Friends of a Free Iran Intergroup (2004-14). He serves as chairman of the In Search of Justice committee on the protection of political freedoms in Iran. He is an international lecturer on the Middle East and is also president of the European Iraqi Freedom Association.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.