RUBIN CENTER, NOVEMBER 7, 2015 BY
The Middle East is currently in the midst of widespread instability, civil strife and the collapse or contraction of state authority. Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Turkey, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Tunisia and Egypt have all experienced major instability over the last half decade. The first four of these areas have effectively ceased to exist as unitary states, and are now partitioned de facto between warring entities, organised according to ethnic, sectarian or tribal loyalty. The Palestinian territories too are divided into areas controlled by the Islamist Hamas movement in Gaza and the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank.
In this fractious landscape, powerful regional states are seeking to gain advantage, extend their own power, and diminish that of their rivals.
The collapse of states has in turn brought with it the decline of the national identities which supposedly underlay them, and the growth of sectarian identification as a political factor. The result is the emergence of Sunni-Shia conflict as a major overt presence in the Middle East. In Yemen, in Iraq, in Lebanon, and in a more complex way in Syria, Sunni-Shia rivalries form a central dynamic, which are also important in terms of the geo-strategic rivalries among major states competing in the Middle East.
Perhaps the single best organised and most aggressive alliance active currently in the Middle East is the bloc of states and movements gathered around the Islamic Republic of Iran. Motivated by clear strategic goals and by powerful ideological motivations, and with long experience of subversion particularly relevant to the current period of instability in the Middle East, Iran and its allies are powerful players in the regional contest.
Prior to the conclusion of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran’s nuclear programme, signed on 14 July 2015, it had appeared that Iran might be approaching a point of overstretch. Tehran was committed to assist a large portfolio of clients engaged in conflict across the region, at a time when Tehran was itself subject to biting economic sanctions. The continued civil war in Syria and the opening of conflicts in Iraq and Yemen – in which the Iranians were heavily committed – seemed to introduce this possibility.
However, the conclusion of the nuclear agreement – and with it the prospect of release of impounded funds as part of sanctions relief – has immediate implications for the related subject of Iranian regional ambitions and outreach. The precise sum likely to become rapidly available to Iran following the signing of the agreement and sanctions relief remains unclear and disputed. Estimates range from $150 billion (the sum frequently quoted by opponents of the nuclear deal) to $56 billion (the likely sum according to US Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew).
But even if one assumes the lower estimate, and combines this with additional sums likely to become available to Iran because of renewed economic ties with the outside world as an element of sanctions relief, it may be concluded that the risk of overstretch, and a consequent inability on the part of Iran to sustain its regional commitments, has effectively disappeared as a result of the signing of the JCPOA.
As a result, Iran is well placed in the current period to continue its practice of supporting proxy political-military organisations in a variety of regional locations, in pursuit of Iranian strategic goals.
IRANIAN AMBITIONS IN THE ARAB WORLD
Iran is currently actively supporting proxies in major conflicts in the following areas: Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories. In addition, there is evidence that Iranian agencies are active among Shia populations – as yet without major effect – in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Tehran also has a strategic relationship with (Sunni majority) Sudan.
Iran’s strategic goal is to emerge as the dominant power in the Middle East and, eventually, the entire Islamic world. It seeks to roll back US influence in the region and to work towards Israel’s destruction.
In all areas of Iranian regional ‘outreach’, a common pattern exists. Iranian regional policy is characterised by the establishment and/or sponsorship of proxy political-military organisations. In every case noted, (with the partial exception of Lebanon) the result of the Iranian involvement is not Iranian strategic victory and the constitution of the state in question as an ally of Iran. Rather, Iranian outreach prevents the defeat and eclipse of the local Iranian ally, while ensuring division and continued conflict in the area in question.
This Iranian modus operandi – and its centrality in Iranian regional strategy – as well as the far reaching nature of Iranian goals as outlined above, mean the notion that a post JCPOA Iran can form a partner for stability in the region is deeply flawed, and will quickly be contradicted by the facts.
The export of chaos has the merit, perhaps, of keeping disorder far from Iran’s own borders by ensuring that rivals to Tehran are kept busy engaged in proxy conflicts elsewhere. However, it is difficult to see how it can result in regional hegemony and leadership.
This Iranian penchant for fomenting chaos also places them on a different trajectory to the Russians. This is important, because the Russian intervention in the Syrian Civil War, from September 2015 has been characterised in some quarters as the birth of a new strategic alliance between Tehran and Moscow. Ibrahim Amin, editor of the pro-Hezbollahal-Akhbar newspaper, happily called this supposed new bloc the ‘4 + 1’ alliance (Iran, Iraq, Syria, Russia and Hezbollah).
But Russia has no interest in strategic support for Islamist proxies in the Middle East. Rather, it seeks powerful state allies, without particular concern as to their internal electoral arrangements or ideological proclivities. The Iranian model of creation and support of proxy Shia Islamist forces contrasts with Russia’s desire for powerful, centralised forces with which it can do business. This means that Russia and Iran have different and even opposed regional orientations, even if there is currently an overlap with regard to the Assad regime in Syria.
As a result of the JCPOA, Iran is likely to increase its support for its portfolio of proxy organisations across the region. The net effect of this will be to increase regional disorder and foment continued conflict. However, because of the built in limitations of Iranian methods and because of the sectarian nature of the conflicts in question (which means Iran finds it very difficult or impossible to pursue really lasting alliances with non-Shia Arab clients), it is unlikely that this will result in the attainment by Iran of its strategic goal of regional leadership/hegemony. Iran is a spoiler par excellence. But despite its ambitions and pretensions, it does not look like the founder of a new Middle Eastern order.
- Ed Schroeder’s Military Intelligence Report: Iran Responsible for Killing 14 Percent of U.S. Troops in Iraq (militarywritersassociation.wordpress.com)
“Death to America!”, Theory and Practice (irantruth.org)
Syrian War Begins to Shift in Iran’s Favor (irantruth,org)
Iran, Playing Games (irantruth.org)