David Andelman: For 2,000 years, Persia survived and thrived behind the world’s longest-standing red line—the borders it maintained against outsiders. Then in a single stroke of hubris and miscalculation, the region suddenly teetered on the precipice of another world war.
I’m David Andelman, author of the new book A Red Line in the Sand. I’m your host as we hopscotch around the world in this 12-part podcast. Together, we’re examining the red line boundaries that have changed history, set political agendas, spilled blood and smoothed paths toward peace.
Today, in episode 7, we’re crisscrossing Iran and its too-often tortured frontiers.
Late in the night of January 3, 2020, General Qassim Soleimani—the second most powerful man in Iran after the Supreme Leader—crossed his nation’s frontier into Iraq. Some saw his trip as a victory lap. But Donald Trump terminated him with a single strike from an unmanned drone. With these strokes—Soleimani's voyage and Trump's attack—a host of red lines was crushed. There was the bloody red line between Iran and Iraq, as we explored in our previous episode; another that mandates no foreign leader would be assassinated by American arms. Then, there were red lines established to counter the spread of terrorism across the region, patrolled by American forces.
Finally, there was the red line of a nuclear-armed Iran. In retaliation, Iranian leadership announced its revenge—a move toward its own nuclear fuel cycle, a giant step toward development of a nuclear weapon.
If we are to understand the origins of how this went suddenly careening off the rails, we must travel back six millennia or more. The Iranian village of Susa is perhaps the oldest organized human settlement. It dates back at least to 8,000 BC and is mentioned in the Bible. Above all, it was the heart of the Fertile Crescent, the birthplace of human civilization. Early red lines there were destroyed by Assyrians invading from nearby Mesopotamia, 700 years before Christ. Twelve centuries before Mohammed, the region's epicenter was in Nineveh in Northern Iraq, outside present-day Mosul.
Persia came into its own again under the rule of Cyrus the Great, King of Persia for three decades. His red lines covered the planet's largest surface area in history. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Persian Empire was the largest of any single nation ever. At its peak, it accounted for nearly half the world's population. Persians were in a near-constant state of conflict with the Roman Empire and the Byzantines for some 600 years. For a sense of scale, that’s nearly the same amount of time from Christopher Columbus arriving in America until now.
Modern Iran was born in the 16th century when Persian became the dominant language and the networks of nomadic tribes were unified under a single leader—the Shah. This unification was cemented by the choice of Shiism as the principal religious sect. At the same time, the Ottomans were choosing Sunnism.
The Shah’s master plan included a network of roads, new trading centers and industries, and the manufacture and export of fine silks. It also included extending the empire’s southern reaches to the Persian Gulf. Eventually, their neighbors began penetrating Persian boundaries and seizing territory, Ottomans from the west and Russians from the north. As Persia’s red lines began to shrink, Russia’s expanded, beginning centuries of alternating conflict and alliances. Eventually, in the face of Russian armies, Persia was forced to sue for peace. The red line frontier between the two empires was signed in 1826 and would stand through the Bolshevik Revolution, two World Wars, the Cold War, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Iran was officially neutral in World War II. But their borders collapsed as both Soviet and British military forces moved in to prevent Germany from taking over critical Iranian oil resources. On September 17, 1941, the Soviet Red Army entered Teheran with British backing. The Shah was kept in power largely by the British and the Americans. Savak, the secret police, was given terrifying powers. Meanwhile, the Shah was building an opulent court that rivaled those of the greatest monarchs of Europe. In October 1971, in the ancient center of Persepolis, the Shah celebrated the 2,500th anniversary of continuous Persian monarchy. It was the most lavish demonstration of nationhood on earth and it began with a colossal parade:
[archival tape of parade]
DA: Orson Welles narrated it in a documentary film:
Orson Welles: On the following evening, the guests moved out into the star-spangled Persian night toward Persepolis, the ruined palace of Cyrus' successor Darius and his son Xerxes. Alexander the Great, the conqueror who reduced it to a shell, is said to have needed 10,000 mules and 6,000 camels to remove the treasures which were housed in the precincts...
DA: Iran in those years was also the second largest importer of arms from abroad after Germany. With his wealth, arms and the Savak police force, the Shah thought he had adequately protected all his flanks. But the real challenge to his regime came from the radical Shiite fringe and a dissident cleric, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. From his exile in a suburb of Paris, this savvy revolutionary realized he could penetrate the Shah’s red lines from a distance. Each morning, the Ayatollah would preach his revolutionary wisdom to a tape recorder. These cassettes, smuggled into Iran and duplicated by the thousands, were like bombs lobbed into the heart of the Shah’s empire. They found a wide audience among those impoverished and oppressed by the Shah’s brutality. There was a growing fever that the Shah and all he represented had to go.
Khomeini’s triumphal return to Iran from his French exile was met by mobs of adoring followers numbering in the millions. From his earliest days in power, Khomeini’s goal was to draw new lines across the Middle East and beyond. He immediately anointed himself and his nation protector of Shiites…..the rule of the clergy as supreme.
His followers immediately began preparing the way—demolishing the Shah’s modern institutions. Mobs burned to the ground liquor stores, theaters, brothels, and banks that charged interest. They even de-constructed a brewery in Teheran brick by brick.
When a group of university students seized 52 American hostages in the U.S. embassy in Teheran, the outlines of this Islamic state were already well established. Khomeini and his regime seemed to have little trouble establishing or defending their red lines on multiple fronts. At the very moment Iranian college students were barricading themselves with their American hostages, Khomeini was also taking on the major military power in the region—Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
We examined the Iraqi point of view in Episode Six. From the Iranian side, however, there was no question of Khomeini relinquishing a single square meter of his territory, nor a single Shiite believer. And Khomeini had the power to summon tens of thousands to arms with a single edict. Within months of his return to Iran, he had assembled 200,000 men to dispatch to the front against Iraq. Many of these Islamic Revolutionary Guard carried their own burial shrouds into battle, anticipating martyrdom. The outcome looked like a draw. But Iranians and especially Ayatollah Khomeini saw themselves as the winners, despite horrific cost.
Over the previous decade, Khomeini had defeated the Great Satan, the United States, seizing its embassy and holding 52 of its people hostage for a year. Jimmy Carter was swept from office, giving way to Ronald Reagan. Saddam Hussein had sustained some crippling losses and won no victory in the end. What could be better?
There was something that would be better: utter defeat of America, banishing its forces from the Middle East entirely. And cementing control over the world’s Shiites who remained in dire peril in many places. It quickly became clear that Iran was prepared to establish lines around every Shiite community in the region—and beyond.
The big question was from where did the Supreme Leader's powers come - especially his power to establish and defend red lines. Two powerful strains continue to divide Iran. The moderates hold that the power of the Supreme Leader derives from the people. The conservatives, led by Ayatollah Khomeini’s successor, the Ayatollah Khamenei, believe his power comes through divine intervention. But from the beginning, he left nothing up to providence.
A very savvy Khamenei, from the moment of his arrival in power, took great pains to cement his relationships with state security, the judiciary, and the media, all of which he controls under the constitution. He also has the power to veto any candidate for elective office and to veto any parliamentary decision, without appeal. He decides how all oil revenues are spent and makes sure government units adhere to the strictest Islamic standards. So, he appoints the leading judges, the heads of state radio and television, leaders of the armed forces and his own Revolutionary Guard. By reporting directly to him, the Guard is able to operate virtually without restraint. As a result, they have accumulated considerable wealth and power, establishing a fortress red line around themselves.
Always keep in mind this theme: Iran’s supreme goal is to ensure the red line of the Persian nation. And this means, by extension, the supremacy of the Shiite branch of Islam wherever they are scattered abroad. 90 percent of all Moslems are Sunnis, with the remainder, the Shiites, concentrated in Iran, Iraq and Pakistan.
Iran began building a web of red lines among terrorist groups and other opposition forces in neighboring countries. This red line network was carefully designed to reinforce Iran’s own security and protect fellow Shiites. Having Iraq, a Sunni-controlled nation, on its borders was a threat to the rule of the Iranian mullahs. Iran desperately needed control over its orbit. So Iran found an ideal tool to extend that control into Iraq: Shiite militias financed by Iran.
Today, as many as 200 such militias thrive in the border regions of Iraq and Syria and as far afield as Afghanistan and Pakistan. Some have as many as 200,000 fighters. The number of militias has more than doubled since just 2014. Many compete with one another for favor, funding and arms from the Revolutionary Guard in Tehran - in particular, its international terrorist-oriented offshoot, the Quds Force. All militias report directly to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The mandate of the Quds Force, from its founding, was to implant resistance operations globally. And it has proven quite successful, extending its red lines concentrically to Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. They have expanded as far as Central Asia, Africa, and even Latin America. Quds Force’s most advanced weaponry has been used against American troops in Afghanistan. Beginning in 2005, ambassadors to Iraq have been members of the Quds Force.
Central to the entire operation is financing. From real estate and construction to laser eye surgery, the Guard has extended its influence into virtually every sector of the Iranian market. Guard-supported organizations raked in more than $12 billion a year in illegal activities, trafficking in banned alcohol and narcotic drugs. This provides the Iranian regime with resources to maintain a vast network of Shiite militias across the Middle East and beyond.
Contemporary Iran is an empire built at once on faith and force of arms. Over its first four decades, it has built a continuously fluid network—groups and sub-groups that have each claimed a vast web of lines shifting by the year, often even weekly or daily. Iran has contributed on many levels—a massive stream of funding for arms and munitions, as well as complex killing machines—missiles, drones, and IEDs….all in the interest of defending their toxic red lines.
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The nature and structure of Iran's forces have evolved on a host of levels beginning in the earliest days of the Khomeini regime in Iran. Their evolution only accelerated after the chaos created by America’s invasion of Iraq and the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Just how tightly Iran controls these forces o is striking. Their methods are quite distinct from other major state actors. Here, the Supreme Leader has absolute authority, derived from God and Mohammed. This means Iran controls far more Shiite militia operating in Syria than either Bashar al-Assad or Vladimir Putin. And it means Iran has established utterly defensible red lines across this region—lines it cannot afford to abandon or shrink. These red lines are military, political and ultimately religious and they often include barbaric acts of torture and assassination.
The political lines are held by Shiite militia soldiers who have shed their uniforms to stand for parliament, especially in Iraq. There’s also now little doubt that large numbers of Iraqi militia forces, most of whom owe their true allegiance to Ali Khamenei will be an integral part of the regular Iraqi army.
But in fact, the situation on the ground has gone much further. Teheran has used militias to build a land bridge across Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. In every case, they have at their disposal some of the most advanced weaponry in the Middle East. Iranian missiles have been launched by Houthi rebels in Yemen targeting Saudi Arabia’s international airport, even the royal palace of King Salman.
Iran wants to expand its southern and western red lines into Syria, but it isn’t alone. Russia and Turkey are also both interested in planting their own flags there. The numbers of fighters assembled by these Iran-backed militia have grown steadily. Martyr videos are used as powerful recruiting tools. Take that of a young militia soldier who apparently died on the battlefield in 2014. The four minute video of his life and funeral begins with inspiring martial music. Its lyrics plead for recruits and urge mercy on his soul…..
[archival martyr recruitment video]
DA: Images of Ayatollah Khamenei smile down benevolently.
This degree of faith is rare even among the most devoted supporters of red lines elsewhere. Even the most devout Wahhabis, the ultra-conservative Sunnis who rule Saudi Arabia, are branded as infidels. In turn, such religious zealotry has motivated much of Iran’s activities in Yemen. There, they back the largely Shiite Houthi rebels against the Sunni Saudi Arabian-supported regime.
In 2012, civil war broke out in Yemen…..a war between Sunnis and Shiites. Thetroops went into battle fully expecting to martyr themselves for their faith. It was Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia—battling to their death by proxies. The best outcome would be the establishment of a new red line. And for this goal, any amount of blood would willingly be spilled by both sides. Saudi Arabia contributed unlimited resources—arms, munitions, aerial support. Iran called in its Shiite militias from Iraq.
Some believe Cain and Abel are buried in Yemen, even that it was the location of the Garden of Eden. Today, Yemen is anything but a Garden of Eden—much of it is a hot, dry desert. But these barren lands have been fought over for centuries, a tribute to Yemen’s strategic location dominating the Red Sea.
Yemen has always been a tribal culture, where nomads ruled until a cohesive nation was established. It has long been a deadly powder keg. The Shiite Houthi tribes claim to descend directly from Mohammed through his daughter, Fatima. Their opponents’ tribes hailed from coastal areas that had converted to Sunnism, hence their closeness to Saudi Arabia. The battles between these opposing forces today are among the most lethal in the world.
Behind their red lines, each side has dug in firmly. More than 100,000 have died in the fighting. And 100,000 children have starved to death. Half the entire population are at risk of famine - the world's worst in 100 years. The United States has viewed the red lines in Yemen as a critical element to be dealt with. Robert O’Brien, Trump’s National Security Advisor, told Chuck Todd on Meet the Press in January 2020:
Robert O’Brien: If there are folks out there that are planning to kill, maim, and harm Americans, that's a red line for us and you've got to be very careful - if you're out, trying to attack the United States of America, you'd better be careful.
DA: The ultimate red line the West established and that Iran reluctantly agreed to respect was that it would not acquire the bomb. Independent of conflicts in Yemen or Syria, Iran was dashing toward a nuclear red line. There were some who believed Iran’s religious faith would stop it from acquiring the ultimate weapon of mass destruction. The rest of the world disagreed. They couldn’t bet the future of mankind on such faith.
To examine nuclear red lines, we need to go further back than the 2015 Iran pact. The starting point should probably be the worldwide Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, signed in 1970. This agreement represents the ultimate nuclear red line. The vast bulk of the world … 191 nations … recognized that proliferation of nuclear weapons can only lead to deadly consequences. This is especially true if they should fall into the hands of terrorists. But sadly, apart from naming-and-shaming nations in violation, there is little that can be done to enforce the red line implicit in this treaty.
Iran has long had a nuclear program.. In 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower launched the Atoms for Peace initiative before the United Nations:
President Dwight Eisenhower: If a danger exists in the world, it is a danger shared by all; and equally, that if hope exists in the mind of one nation, that hope should be shared by all.
DA: Eisenhower hoped to build peaceful nuclear reactors in nations that would agree to a quid pro quo. In return for a boundless supply of nuclear energy for electrical generation, each country would agree that nuclear material would not be diverted to weapons production. And the United States was allowed to ensure that. Under this program, the U.S. built nuclear reactors in Pakistan, Israel, and elsewhere. In 1957, it began a nuclear research program in Teheran.
Over the years, the US supplied Iran with a nuclear research reactor and highly enriched uranium as fuel. When Ayatollah Khomeini took over in Iran in 1979, that program was in full flower.It simultaneously extracted and stockpiled plutonium, which could be used to ignite a nuclear weapon. This was a far cry from the original intention of the Atoms for Peace program. Iran seemed to be en route to establishing its own nuclear red line. By then, 1979, the United States had ended its nuclear collaboration with Iran and halted its supplies of fuel. Iran was hardly deterred. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons guru, A.Q. Khan, was the first person Iran turned to for advice, technology and fuel. Eventually, China began supplying reactors and Russia stepped up its own offers.
It was only one short—if complex—step toward the even more highly enriched uranium needed to build a bomb. Still, it was not at all clear that the ayatollahs who ran the country were prepared to make that final step. The road to that final step began in 2006 when Iran embarked on a major program of uranium enrichment. It was testing just how far it could push this idea of becoming a nuclear power—with or without an actual weapon. But by 2012, the situation was becoming desperate. That October, I sat down with Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran’s foreign minister. Trained in nuclear engineering at MIT, Salehi knew what he was talking about. He said “There’s nothing in the nuclear field that we have not really achieved, and the technology is within our reach." But, he smiled, the Supreme Leader “has issued a fatwa, which says the production, accumulation, and the use of nuclear weapons is forbidden and is against [our] religion.”
Six countries, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (Britain, France, Russia, China and the United States) plus Germany—had been following Iran’s progress closely. They felt varying degrees of unease as it installed 27,000 centrifuges able to produce enough highly enriched uranium for eight to ten bombs.
The process toward an agreement began to accelerate. This was largely due to two parallel developments—heavy sanctions leveled at Iran and the arrival of a new Iranian president. Hassan Rouhani was considered by most in the West as a liberal, at least by Iranian standards.
Now the real talks got underway in Geneva. It took a year for Iran to agree to freeze production of enriched uranium and halt the installation of new centrifuges. In return, $4 billion of Iran’s money, frozen in banks around the world, would be unblocked. In the end, it came down to the length of “breakout time” and what Iran could get in return. President Obama identified one year as a reasonable period. A year would be enough time to pursue ‘alternative' means of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. Alternative meant military. Talks went on past dawn in Geneva. What finally got negotiations over the hump was a last-ditch offer by the United States to lift sanctions on a dozen mid-level Iranians.
Iran agreed to give up all but a small number of centrifuges, disable reactors, and arrange detailed verification. For as much as 20 years, uranium stockpiles and enrichment were capped. And for a decade, there would be no additional centrifuge production. These terms would render Iran incapable of “breaking out” and assembling any viable nuclear weapon in under a year. In return, the United States ended all sanctions against Iran’s oil and banking sectors and its citizens. But the U.S. would still maintain its sanctions targeting human rights, terrorism and missile activities.
It took just a single statement by Donald Trump to unravel it all four years later. Until then, the firm red line had held, and had given every indication of holding for at least a decade. It was the most perfect red line existing in the world—the least challenged, the most effective. All parties agreed on a clear goal … that Iran must never have a nuclear weapon. Yet, Donald Trump based his withdrawal on a caricature of diplomatic shorthand:
President Donald Trump: At the point when the United States had maximum leverage, this disastrous deal gave this regime—and it’s a regime of great terror—many billions of dollars, some of it in actual cash—a great embarrassment to me as a citizen and to all citizens of the United States… At the heart of the Iran deal was a giant fiction that a murderous regime desired only a peaceful nuclear energy program.
DA: There began an elaborate two-year dance involving Europe, Russia and China, in an effort to salvage what Trump intended to destroy. Reacting to the continued sanctions, Iran inched further back from the accord.
Europeans continued expressing their view of the pact—that its structure had bought at least a decade of a nuclear-free Middle East. But with the nuclear accord coming apart, it quickly became clear that all the guardrails had been loosened. Clearly, Iran will never declare itself a nuclear-free zone in the sense that Trump wanted—what he'd been urging on North Korea. That is an utterly implausible red line. But the rhetoric didn't help cool things. In a twitter tirade, the president threatened Iran with “obliteration."
The final round of escalations began with the U.S. drone assassination of General Qassim Soleimani in Iraq in January 2020. Commander of the Quds force, Soleimani was the closest military officer to the Supreme Leader. He was the principal liaison between Tehran and the Shiite militias. Climbing the ladder of escalation, Trump was nearing the final rungs, with apparently little understanding of the passions he had unleashed.
By now, the Ayatollahs understood that Trump had his own red line, testing how far he could push Iran’s economy toward collapse. Iran in turn tested
America's appetite for total war. But the Iranians began to understand something quite profound with respect to Trump. He could tweet with bravado about “the most powerful military force in the world.” But he didn’t really want to go to war. He'd seen what it did for his predecessors—Bush and Obama—with conflicts where Americans died in large numbers. Trump did not want Americans coming home in body bags on his watch. Still, Iran had made it clear it had red lines of its own.
What Iran may have failed to factor into its equation was an especially grim reality on the other side of these lines. There was little understanding, at least in Donald Trump's America, of the minds of the ayatollahs and their own red lines, vital to their survival.
In many respects, this is not unlike the case of Russia and its near-abroad, or China and its South Sea islands. Each is a dominant regional power, which establishes red lines to guarantee the safety of its heartland. In the case of Iran, it is doing its best to solidify a fully Shiite vassal state in Yemen. At the same time, if there was any doubt that Iraq has now effectively become a vassal of Iran, one leading ayatollah explained:
Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda [translated narration by DA]: What he’s saying is …. Today's Iran is not just Iran…not limited by geographical borders. The militias in Iraq are Iran. Hezbollah in Lebanon is Iran. The Houthis in Yemen are Iran. The national front in Syria is Iran. The Islamic Jihad and Hamas in Palestine are Iran. They have all become Iran.
DA: The audience promptly responded:
Audience: Allah Akbar! God is Great….Khamenei is the leader! Death to those who oppose his Rule!
DA: At which point the ayatollah concluded: "South or north – what difference does it make? Iran is both to your south and to your north." And to the west, where the entire continent of Africa is now suddenly in play and has a vast web of red lines unlike those on any other continent.
We will explore the African red line network in our next episode.
Thanks for listening.
Meanwhile, I hope you’ll check out my new book from Pegasus, "A Red Line in the Sand: Diplomacy, Strategy, and the History of Wars That Might Still Happen."
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