It's now four decades since the revolution of 1978/1979 ended the career of the Shah of Iran, replacing his regime with the Islamic Republic. For those living in Iran, this brought a government even more tyrannical than the shah's. To the world outside, it's clear that Iran's policy has led to so many military adventures that it has further destabilized a region seldom noted for stability. Where Iran goes, trouble follows.
Iran has invested money and soldiers in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Gaza and who knows where else. Some Iranians back home are convinced that handsome profits flow willingly from Iran's oil revenues to soldiers and arms dealers, not so willingly to the civilian needs of Iranians. In one anti-government demonstration in Tehran, a protester carried a sign complaining that she was sick of subsidizing people in Lebanon.
Iran seems to be especially generous with Hamas, the violence-prone organization that runs the nearest thing to a government in Gaza. Iran has provided as much as $30 million in one year to keep Hamas making trouble for Israel. At one point the United States was so annoyed by the grant to Hamas that it imposed sanctions on Iran's Bank Saderat.
All of this may sound to many of us like empire building, but Iran sees it another way. It's defensive. Iran fears an attack from the U.S. (which it considers a permanent enemy), and claims that these outposts will make such a move difficult. With a straight face they defend it as a "forward defensive posture." They also keep quiet about the progress made on their nuclear bomb, though a team of Israeli agents recently broke into a secret lab and came back reporting that at one time they were farther ahead than outsiders imagined.
In at least one infamous case, Iran seems to have reached outlandishly far outside its region. In 1994, in Buenos Aires, a suicide bomber killed 85 people and injured many more at a Jewish insurance office. Argentine authorities (and many others) believe the killer was assigned by Iran through its wholly owned and operated subsidiary, Hezbollah.
This week the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad has been planning to recover a symbolically significant town, Daraa, "the cradle of the revolution." It's the place where 15 boys from prominent families were arrested for painting anti-government graffiti. The public response was strong enough to result in a years-long rebellion. And now Assad has help. Iran-supported Shia militias are among the forces trying to restore Daara to its traditional place within Syria. Jonathan Spyer in the Jerusalem Post reports that two Iranian generals had been photographed, in their official uniforms, chatting with Russian soldiers during a pause in the action.
But of course being in Syria means being just one border away from Israel, which can be uncomfortable. The Israelis have bombed an Iranian base in southern Syria three times, and are ready to do it again. They won't tolerate "entrenchment and consolidation" so close. Israel's defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman, says "the fact Iranian forces are present in Syria at all is unacceptable." It's often reported that Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United Arab Emirates are trying to convince Russia to force out the thousands of Iranian or Iranian-controlled troops now in Syria. They are a threat not only to Israel but to nearby Arab states.
In 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini, the charismatic leader of the revolution, installed Shia Islam as the national religion and built it into the constitution. Iran has ever since been a theocracy: the government operates under religious supervision beneath an autocratic Supreme Leader, said to be infallible.
The high-handed way Iran sets up its outposts suggests that there's a major flaw in this system. For most of the world the Supreme Leader is far from infallible. He needs a restraining hand at his elbow.