[Especially for Star Wars fans].
When Lord Vader fought his iconic duel with Obi-Wan Kenobi, he began the encounter with the following words: “The circle is now complete. When I left you, I was but a learner. Now I am the master.” Or in different words, I have come a long way to challenge you. Now, for a surprise – these words came back to me while attending the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism’s (ICT’s) 17th World Summit on Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya, Israel. And do not worry, they had nothing do with any kind of mastery, I possess none. However, they seemed relevant while thinking of how one country was presented at this event. You guessed it, I am talking about Iran. Just to re-assure the more serious minded readers, this blog will not see Iran compared to Darth Vader. Nor will it cast anybody in the role of the wise man of Obi-Wan Kenobi. But let me start from the beginning.
The aforementioned World Summit is one of the, if not THE, must-attend conferences for any geek who lists terrorism or counter-terrorism amongst one’s research areas/interests. First of all, and to all of you out there who spend years researching terrorism, go there, it is definitely worth it. Now, for a surprise: the terms “terrorism” and “counter-terrorism” were not the top two heard from the conference panellists this year. “Iran” did beat them to spot no. 1. I heard it so often at the Summit that it even got into my childhood memory of a Darth Vader vs Obi-Wan duel.
Perhaps, it is not a surprise, and could have been expected. From where Israel sits, Iranian geopolitical ambitions look like the primary threat. At the Summit, however, this was not explicitly tied to Iran’s nuclear programme which, depending on where you stand, is either to be tolerated or constitutes the worst thing since the outbreak of the Black Death. So no stories of Iran actually using its nuclear weapons, no. The Iranian threat was mostly glimpsed via geopolitical accounts which saw Tehran first accomplish the construction of its arc of influence (from Iran, via Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean), and consequently, challenge Israel directly through Syria.
This vision of an ever “on the march” (President Macron, no pun intended) Iran at times completely dominated the proceedings. And yes, the threat from it was mostly perceived through “counter-terrorism” lenses – especially in relation to Iranian sponsoring of terrorism in general and nurturing of allied, irredentist non-state actors around the region in particular. Given the focus of the summit, this was fine, and one had to appreciate the fact that there is a place on the planet where first class research on Shia, and not essentially, Sunni militancy is appreciated. Interestingly, though, all of this came at the expense of other types or forms of terrorism, and also most well-known organisations utilising this form of violence for their political ends. Hezbollah got a lot mentions but this was always happening against the backdrop of the “Iran” issue or threat. I have heard the name “Islamic Jihad” (Iran supported, mind you) mentioned once. Hamas’ (again, Iran supported) absence from majority of the discussions is equally surprising (yes, it got a separate 1 hour session as a consolation prize).
In addition to all this, it got even more interesting from there – ISIS was ridiculed as a spent force, almost a maskirovka with some delegates, again, pointing the finger at Iran. Let’s recap here: yes, people suggested Iran is behind ISIS, and while substantiating this argument they were reminding other participants of Iran’s not-so-low key “hear no evil-see no evil” attitude towards Al-Qaeda, especially its Iraqi branch. Mind you, this Iraqi branch subsequently morphed into…ISIS. So, this “completed the circle,” if we were to switch back to Star Wards parlance. Iran, a Shia state, on a seeming war path with Sunni militancy, has come a long way to meddle even in terrorism of ISIS, and to bend it towards its geopolitical goals. It may not have been the natural sponsor of this organisation but it, again, “completed the circle.”
Whether one buys this line of reasoning, however, is a completely different matter. Do not be surprised, though, when more information on the aforementioned “completion of the full circle” resurface during the next couple of weeks. Remember, president Trump is to uphold or withhold his certification of the Iranian compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Let’s hope he does not cast himself as Obi-Wan. Please.