Dr. Ali Bakeer
During June 2020, two senior Iranian officials signaled a shift in Iran’s stance regarding Libya.
In a letter to the United Nations Security Council last May, Israel’s UN envoy Danny Danon accused Tehran of sending Iranian-made advanced weapons to Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar.
Danon asserted that Tehran continues to transfer advanced weaponry illicitly throughout the region citing ‘Dehlaviyeh’ anti-tank guided missile systems used by militias associated with General Haftar’s forces in Libya.
Referring to the Iranian involvement in Libya as an “additional proof of the Iranian regime’s ambitions for regional influence,” the Israeli ambassador, affirmed that the presence of Iranian weapons on the Libyan soil is another grave violation of Security Council resolution 2231 (2015), as outlined in article 6 (b) of annex B, which prevents ‘the supply, sale, or transfer of arms or related materiel from Iran.”
Several Iranian pundits questioned Danon’s statement based on the fact that it is coming from an Israeli ambassador, calls into question the reliability and credibility of the information.
They argued that Tehran can’t support warlord Haftar because he is being supported by UAE and Saudi Arabia, and there is no way the Iranian government can be in the same camp with these Gulf states because such commitment will end up increasing the regional influence of Tehran’s own supposed rivals.
They also asserted that Iran is not a part of what is going on Libya because Libya fits neither into Iran’s grand ideological agenda nor in its long term geopolitical plans.
According to this point of view, Iran’s deep involvement in the Middle East region would make its presumed involvement in Libya almost impossible even if Tehran wants to get involved.
This narrative suffers several serious flaws especially when it comes to the historic context of the Iran-Libya relations, the complexity of Iran’s foreign policies, its covert operations, and finally, the long-lasting very Machiavellian behavior of Iran “the means justify the ends”.
Iran’s Khomeini and Libya’s Ghaddafi
Being geographically distant from each other gives the impression that Tripoli is not important for Iran or can’t serve its regional agenda. Yet, a closer look at the relations between the two countries during the times of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini and Muammar al-Gaddafi tells us a totally different story.
During the Iran-Iraq war, Libya came to Iran’s aid politically and militarily. Despite the ideological differences, Gaddafi played a crucial role in supporting Khomeini’s regime in Iran against Iraq.
In fact, Qaddafi’s regime was one of three regimes in the world that decided to support Iran at the time alongside the Assad regime in Syria, and the North Korean regime. Ironically, Israel emerged as the first western and the fourth weapons supplier for Iran.
Libya was also the first country to grant Scud-B ballistic missiles to Iran to be used against Iraq. According to the Iranian officials, Gaddafi sent missiles to Iran free of charge without asking for their price even.
At the time, the Hafez al-Assad regime in Syria provided training to Iranian personnel on how to use these ballistic missiles, and later on, North Korea supplied Iran with the needed technology to develop its own ballistic missiles arsenal.
In the post Iran-Iraq war period, Libya and Iran witnessed intensified economic and diplomatic cooperation. Both even cooperated in missile technology.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, Iran reportedly agreed to supply technical assistance to the Gadhafi regime’s ballistic missile program and MRBM program in returns for millions of dollars as an annual fee.
These developments occurred even though Iran and its regional allies and proxies were accusing Gaddafi of ordering the killing of the very influential Iranian-Lebanese Shiite clerk Musa a-Sadr who disappeared while in a visit to Libya in 1978.
Although some Iranians accuse Khomeini too of playing a role in his disappearance to remove him from his way as a popular clerk, the definite thing is that the Iranian Foreign Ministry had rejected a request –at the time- to find Sadr because the Iranian authorities “did not want to sacrifice the political relations for family relations”.
Fast forward, when the Libyan revolution erupted in 2011, Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s primary ally in the region, reportedly sent military support to Qaddafi.
Assad regime denied this at the time, but when his regime fell, several reports pointed out that Assad played a role in selling out Gaddafi to the French intelligence which led to his death at the end.
With the fall of Gaddafi’s regime, hundreds of shells equipped with chemical components were found in Libya. It was believed that the Gaddafi regime had acquired them from Iran after the latter had received help from Israel and Britain to develop nerve and mustard gas in the 1990s.
The Iran-Assad-Russia axis
After toppling Gaddafi, Libya entered into turmoil. On 17 December 2015, an UN-led initiative resulted in a political agreement between the Libyan conflicting parties in Al-Skhirat in Morocco.
The agreement which was known since then as “Al-Skhirat agreement” created three bodies, a Presidential Council and the High Council of State, and established the Government of National Accord.
The United Nations Security Council unanimously endorsed the agreement and recognized the Government of National Accord (GNA) as the sole legitimate executive authority in Libya.
Despite being internationally recognized as Libya’s sole legitimate government –and still hold the same status by the UN till now-, Iran refused to recognize the GNA citing lack of support from the Tobruk Parliament which will later establish a rival government to the GNA and support warlord Khalifa Haftar.
The situation will result in splitting the Libyan forces between the GNA forces and Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA).
Another factor that is believed to have shaped the negative Iranian position from the GNA is that Tehran considered the GNA as a US tool.
At the end of 2016, the GNA forces with the support of US, Britain, and Italy launched a military operation against the last stand ISIS presence in Sirte while Haftar was focusing on consolidating his powers in the eastern part of the country by attacking ports, oil fields, and controlling more lands.
During 2019 warlord Khalifa Haftar led a major military campaign against Tripoli. UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, France, and Russia led the support for Haftar against the UN-recognized GNA to enable him to enter the Capital, topple the GNA, and seize the power by force.
At the time, the UAE-Saudi axis tried to promote a false narrative that Iran is supporting the GNA to convince the West of increasing the support to Haftar in his so-called mission against Islamists and radicals.
When Haftar failed to seize the capital, and overthrow the GNA, extra support came to him starting from the beginning of 2020 from Russia and the Assad regime, both of which are allies of Iran.
As Damascus and Moscow were deepening their pro-Haftar involvement in the Libyan theatre, more evidence on Iran’s role in Libya has begun to surface.
Even though Libya’s social and religious fabric doesn’t allow Iran to infiltrate the country easily the way it is doing in the Gulf or the Levent region, yet, what makes things easier for Iran in Libya is that it doesn’t have to play an overt, direct, and active role there.
There is always a way to play covert, indirect, and a passive role through its allies and mainly through the Assad regime and Russia whether it be transferring Iranian-made weapons, military support, illicit trade, etc.
For some time, the Assad regime has been sending ships to Benghazi in Libya through Latakia port which is under the control of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Likewise, Russia has sent some fighter jets to Haftar after stopping in Hamadan airbase in Iran and Hemeimeem airbase in Syria.
While some pundits insist that Iran can’t be with UAE in one camp, it is safer and more credible to assume that Tehran will not stand against its own primary and long-standing ally in Libya which is Assad regime, not to mention Russia.
The fact that UAE supports Assad in Syria is in itself a proof that Iran can also be with UAE and Saudi Arabia in one camp if its interest dictates so.
Moreover, Iran, Assad, UAE, Saudi Arabia, and even Egypt share one common goal which is countering Turkey regionally. The desire to counter Ankara seems to be stronger than any supposed enmity between the UAE and Iran.
In fact, more and more recent statements from Iran and UAE have been indicating that the relations between them are improving in an unprecedented way. Taking this into consideration, it is safe to assume that they all see the Libyan theatre as an opportunity to achieve this common goal.
Dr. Ali Bakeer – a political analyst who specializes in geopolitical and security trends in the Middle East with a specific focus on Turkey, Iran, and the Arab Gulf states. Dr. Bakeer has over a decade of experience as a consultant – working with senior officials, decision makers, and other stakeholders for governmental, non-governmental, and private sector institutions across the region.