By Ben Cohen/JNS.org
If you haven’t encountered the term “Shi’a corridor” yet, chances are that you will in the coming weeks, particularly if the ongoing confrontation between the U.S. and Iran in Syria intensifies.
What was initially a sideshow to the main battle against Islamic State in Syria is fast becoming the main focus of attention. In recent weeks, the U.S. has shot down at least two Iranian armed drones over Syria. A Syrian regime bomber jet supposedly attacking Islamic State positions near Raqqa was also downed, after it ventured too close to positions held by U.S.-allied forces. Armed skirmishes have been reported between U.S.-allied forces and Iranian-backed Shi’a Islamist militias. The Russians—allied with Iran in supporting the tyrant Bashar al-Assad in Damascus—are also part of this dangerous equation, going so far as to declare that Moscow’s generals will treat U.S.-led coalition aircraft flying west of the Euphrates River in Syria as “potential targets.”
What does Iran hope to achieve here? To start with, it’s important to note that the international legitimacy the mullahs have enjoyed since the Iran nuclear deal of 2015 is starting to fragment. The U.S. Senate this month voted to slap new sanctions on Iran for its violations outside the terms of the nuclear deal, such as its use of ballistic missiles and its support for terrorist groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon. Such political moves invariably have a significant economic impact, which is why Western banks continue to advise caution towards companies tempted to invest in Iran.
None of this fretting is of much consequence to the overtly revolutionary wings of the Iranian regime, most obviously the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which is built to retain its enormous power with or without sanctions in place. But the eclipse of the Obama administration’s engagement strategy with Iran highlights once again that it is institutions like the IRGC, much more than one or another foreign minister sounding reasonable and eloquent, that define the nature of power and influence in the Islamic Republic.
This is where the “Shi’a corridor” comes in. Iran’s goal to become the dominant power in the Islamic world involves more than religious or ideological influence. It requires the boots of Iran and its proxies on the ground—as demonstrated already in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. It requires that Iran has easy, uninterrupted access to all those parts of the region where it exercises political control.
On one level, the idea of a Shi’a corridor seems a little fantastical. Almost 2,000 miles separate Tehran from the Mediterranean coast to its far west. The road between the two points is distinguished by rough terrain and the presence of numerous militias along the route, many of them belonging to Sunni Islamist factions hostile to Iran. In addition to heavy defenses on the ground, the corridor would need effective aerial warning systems, given Israel’s demonstrated willingness to bomb weapons shipments between Iran and its allies in Syria and Lebanon. Can a country with an ailing economy like Iran’s, that is now facing an increasingly hostile administration in Washington, D.C., really carve out such a corridor unopposed?
The point, for now at least, is Iran is doing precisely that—assisted by the lack of a defined U.S. policy towards not just the Iranian nuclear program, but its entire regional role; the absence of any appetite among the Europeans for a confrontation with Tehran; and the unprecedented support coming from Iran’s traditional foe, Russia, thanks to President Vladimir Putin’s benevolence.
In other words, Iran will face obstacles to its contiguous territorial path only if its adversaries—not just America, but also Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia, among others—are willing to place them there.
Does the advance of the corridor so far warrant such concern? At the end of May, a few correspondents in the region, among them the Israeli journalist Seth Franztman and the American reporter Dexter Filkins, reported that Iranian-backed militias had seized a cluster of villages along the Syrian-Iraqi border, thereby securing an encumbered road link between the IRGC in Tehran and its client in Damascus.
“The development is potentially momentous,” Filkins wrote in The New Yorker, “because, for the first time, it would bind together, by a single land route, a string of Iranian allies, including Hezbollah, in Lebanon; the Assad regime, in Syria; and the Iranian-dominated government in Iraq. Those allies form what is often referred to as the Shiite Crescent, an Iranian sphere of influence in an area otherwise dominated by Sunni Muslims.”
While those same Sunni Muslims are divided between those who see the Muslim Brotherhood or Iran as their main enemy, and those who accord that distinction to Israel and the U.S., Iran is presenting a unified Shi’a revolutionary stance towards the outside world. Iran has allies all the way from Lebanon to Bahrain, and Iran is their unmistakable leader. When looked at on the map, this status conveys the possibility of an Iranian empire that Tehran’s actions in the field seek only to reinforce.
The consequences for Israel of a Shi’a corridor are, needless to say, acute. Since the war in Lebanon in the mid-1980s, Israel has been acutely aware of Iran’s ability to wage direct war on its territory, through the missile barrages of its Hezbollah proxy in Lebanon. The existence of a land corridor will transform Iran’s capacity in this regard, perhaps to the point where a land-based war launched against Israel from Syria and Lebanon could be as perilous as a nuclear attack.
For some time now, it has been an established fact that Hezbollah has increased its number of missiles pointed at Israel by a factor of 10, with newer and deadlier models now in operation—despite the existence of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, passed in 2006, which demands that Hezbollah disarm entirely. A land corridor would make any attempt to enforce this resolution a much harder task.
As always, Israel is prepared for the worst. But how it responds will depend, more than anything else, on how the Trump administration copes with the reality that America is once again locked in combat with its adversaries.
Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS.org on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.