Opinion | International

The mullahs seek to control uncontrolled chaos

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Much of the ongoing chaos in the Middle East today shares a common thread: Iran. The chaos we see stems from two sources - aggression mandated by Iran's mullahs and the fallout therefrom. And, while difficult for us to grasp, there may well be a certain method to the mullahs' madness in creating this chaos - although doubtfully it is not playing out as they intended.

Before addressing the method, let us examine the chaos.

For two years now, protests and strikes have been occurring in Iran with regularity, further wreaking havoc upon an economy that, under the pressure of U.S. sanctions, has been spiraling downward. These sanctions have dropped Iran to the bottom of OPEC's list of crude producers. The result has been the worst unrest the country has suffered in 40 years as protests have spread to 132 cities.

While domestic security forces remain too strong for protesters to overcome, it is clear from the continuing social unrest the public has reached a breaking point in its tolerance of a theocracy now viewed as the enemy of the people.

Iranians struggle for survival because of an economy on life support (in spite of President Barack Obama having released billions of dollars to the Iranian government), venting their anger at the mullahs who have been stripping the country of its wealth to fund their own or to fund terrorist organizations outside the country, such as Hezbollah's Shiites, to do their bidding for them. Adding insult to injury, the mullahs have ignored their own people by also crossing sectarian lines to fund the Sunni terrorist group Hamas in Gaza.

Just like previous domestic protests, the mullahs have no hesitation about pulling out all the stops to quell it. Brutality, torture, mass killings are among options being used to preserve their power. In 1988, an estimated 30,000 political prisoners suffered extra-judicial executions. More than 1,000 have been shot and killed in the current protests.

Like apples rotting from within, so too is the Iranian government's control. But as domestic protests challenge that control at its core, other challenges to the mullahs' control are mounting outside the Islamic Republic.

During the mullahs' 40-year reign, they have sought to create a regional "caliphate." While they felt Syria, at least until the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad began, was firmly in it, they also believed Iraq and Lebanon were, too.

But now, the Iraqis have come to resent Iran's long reach into their country's affairs - a reach that expanded with the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. troops. For Shia-majority Iran, it was the mullahs' natural expectation to pull Shia-majority Iraq into their caliphate fold. 

Iran's expansion into Lebanon - a once Christian-majority and now Muslim-majority country - came into the caliphate fold largely through the efforts of Hezbollah, founded and subsequently funded by Iran. While the U.S. briefly played a role in trying to play peacemaker in Lebanon, the 1983 Beirut Marine Barracks bombing, ordered by Tehran, that killed 241 Americans, caused the U.S. to withdraw from the country in 1984.

Thus, U.S. withdrawals from both countries created a vacuum that Iran immediately sought to fill as part of its master plan. 

However, all is not well within the caliphate today. Just like the mullahs have made life miserable for their own people, they have done the same for the Lebanese and Iraqis.

In Iraq, anti-Iran protests have erupted, resulting in the burning of its consulate in Najaf. In Lebanon, protests have broken out over the ruling elite's economic corruption. 

Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir recently said of Tehran's efforts to re-assert its control, "Iran is on a rampage." No longer able to lavish money upon its key players at home or terrorist proxies abroad, Jubeir explains U.S. sanctions are impacting on practically every sector of Tehran's economy. While the bad news is the "good guys" - the Iranian people - have suffered the financial squeeze, the good news is so, too, have the "bad guys."

To understand how Middle East chaos originally was part of the mullahs' master plan, we need to look back at their belief in the return of "the Mahdi" or "12th Imam."

According to Islamic belief, the Mahdi disappeared at a young age in the 9th century, rising into a state of occultation, where he remains until a "triggering event" causes his return to Earth to subjugate the world to Islam. That triggering event is world chaos.

While Sunnis believe in the Mahdi as well, there is a distinction: They believe such chaos must evolve independently of man's interference; the mullahs, however, believe man can be a catalyst in creating it.

While the mullahs sought to create an "organized" chaos that they controlled, what they are facing is uncontrolled chaos as they learn about the law of unintended consequences.

We should be worried about how Iran fares in trying to bring its own order to this chaos. Despite a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action negotiated by Obama in 2015, supposedly delaying Tehran's path to developing nuclear arms for at least 10 years, we are now learning the "break out" time by which it could have a nuclear weapon is merely months away. Additionally, its ever-improving missile capability is extending its striking distance. And it is just such a nuclear strike capability that is more in line with the controlled chaos of the mullahs' original master plan.

Doubters need only look to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's claim during his tenure (2005-2013). Confident Tehran would have a nuclear weapon while in office, he informed other Arab leaders Mahdi would be returning soon, commissioning a film to explain the chaos to come. (Earlier, as mayor of Tehran, Ahmadinejad even had its streets widened to accommodate welcoming crowds for Mahdi's return.) Only the setback caused to Iran's nuclear program by the introduction of the U.S.-Israeli malware "Stuxnet" denied Ahmadinejad his dream of nukes ushering in Mahdi.

While some of us may take comfort believing Iran would never use a nuclear weapon against us, knowing the impact of a U.S. counter-strike, we should not. The late Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei disregarded it long ago, proclaiming 20 years ago this month: "We do not worship Iran, we worship Allah. ... Patriotism is another name for paganism. I say let this land burn. I say let this land go up in smoke, provided Islam emerges triumphant in the rest of the world."

The mullahs' master plan should leave us with little doubt as to what Iran's intentions are once it is nuclear-armed.

James G. Zumwalt is a retired Marine lieutenant colonel who served in the Vietnam War, the U.S. invasion of Panama and the first Gulf War. He heads a security consulting firm named after his father, Adm. Zumwalt & Consultants, Inc.

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