Assertive Iran: The Rising Hegemon of the Middle East

BY ERIK KHZMALYAN

The Islamic Republic’s muscle flexing in the Middle East is a sign of a new emerging regional hegemon. With a heavy reliance on its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Tehran has made it clear that it will project power in neighboring countries to advance Iran’s national interests. The IRGC has fostered the regime’s influence in surrounding nations by attempting to structure the post-war futures of Iraq and Syria. Additionally, the toppling of Saddam Hussein has left Iran ascendant and paved the way to its regional dominance.

Though its original purpose was to protect Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime from an internal coup, the organization has grown large enough to export the regime’s vision to surrounding states and propel Tehran’s regional aspirations.

Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, IRGC has shaped Iran’s foreign policy through its subunits that have conducted extraterritorial operations throughout the region. Though its original purpose was to protect Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime from an internal coup, the organization has grown large enough to export the regime’s vision to surrounding states and propel Tehran’s regional aspirations.[1]

Operation Iraqi Freedom ended Saddam’s two-decade rule in Iraq. Pundits argue that Saddam’s ousting was like manna from heaven to Iran which suddenly was left with no major geopolitical rival in the region. However, the opposite is also true as Iran found itself encircled by the US troops placed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, the presence of US forces in the area could potentially contain IRGC’s strategic ambitions in Levant. Nonetheless, Tehran took the initiative to fill the geopolitical vacuum created by Saddam’s departure. The regime has been deploying IRGC personnel to mold Iraq in a way so as to prevent or delay its revival as a geopolitical threat. Since 2003, all major Iranian diplomatic figures in Iraq have been established members of Qods Force, a special unit within the IRGC.[2] It should come as no surprise that last month Tehran picked Iraj Masjedi to be the next ambassador to Baghdad. Masjedi is an experienced advisor to Qods Force and previously held a leading position in IRGC’s Ramadan headquarters.[3]

Tehran was relieved to strike the Iran Deal with the Obama Administration.

Iran’s fears of greater US involvement in the Middle East and its ultimate encirclement were more or less mitigated by Obama’s decision to withdraw troops from Iraq. Furthermore, Tehran was relieved to strike the Iran Deal with the Obama Administration. The regime interpreted it as an assurance that military option to halt its nuclear program was off the table.

To further increase its influence in Iraq, Tehran has recruited local Shia groups to fight ISIS. Though the US airstrikes continue, the ill-prepared Iraqi army has made the US officials come to terms with the presence of Shia militias backed by Tehran. Iran has masterfully taken advantage of Iraq’s Shia majority to expand its influence in the country’s domestic affairs through the use of its soft power. One would be right to assume that Tehran’s growing influence in Shia holy cities of Najaf and Karbala will further solidify Iran’s presence in Iraq.

On many occasions, Iraqi high profile officials have announced that they would accept Iran’s guidance in security-related matters and called for a deeper cooperation.[4] In its turn, Tehran has not hidden the presence of IRGC forces in Iraq. The latter has used the Iraqi territory to conduct airstrikes and train Iraqi forces. Despite the recent military advancements by Iraqi armed forces in Mosul, there is still a large question mark hanging over the ultimate control of the city. If anything, it is yet unclear whether the Iraqi army will be able to sustain its victory. The KRG (Kurdish Regional Government) forces seem to be the most capable of dictating the future of Mosul. Iran has been supplying the Kurds with necessary weaponry from the first battles against ISIS and enjoys much popularity among Kurdish fighters.[5] The current warming of relations, however, does not guarantee a longer-term political cooperation between the Kurds and the Iranians. Aside from weapon delivery, Tehran deployed its Qods Force to assist the Iraqi army during the Battle of Mosul, making the victory plausible.[6] Granted Iran’s military and financial presence in Iraq, Tehran will have the leverage to further expand its influence in Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city.

Tehran’s waning influence would enable a Sunni power-grab, creating a spillover effect into the other war-ravaged countries of the region.

Though the Islamic Republic has made Iraq a high priority, it has also engaged in proxy wars against Riyadh in surrounding states of Bahrain, Lebanon, and Yemen. Nevertheless, it is Syria where Tehran sees its strategic interests being directly imperiled. While the international media continues to spotlight the Russian intervention, Iran’s involvement in Syria’s calamitous war has not received nearly as much coverage.

First and foremost, like in the case of Iraq, Iran wants to shape Syria’s postwar future. Assad’s demise would most likely open a door for Sunni groups who will show no mercy for Syria’s Alawi minority. Tehran’s waning influence would enable a Sunni power-grab, creating a spillover effect into the other war-ravaged countries of the region. From Iran’s geostrategic perspective, Syria also serves as a buffer against Israel. The IRGC leadership understands that the loss of Syria will jeopardize its deterrence capabilities. In short, Syria is a zero-sum game for Tehran and the regime cannot afford to lose such a pivotal strategic partner. Unlike Russia, the Islamic Republic does not have much room for compromises and will accelerate its strategic pursuits in Levant.

Given the rising uncertainty in the Middle East – in which Iran has its own share of responsibility – Tehran will continue its hard-line regional policy. Tehran comprehends that relying on Moscow for a solid partnership would be an irreversible mistake. Both Moscow and Tehran oppose the prospect of a Western monopoly over Syria. However, for the Kremlin, Syria – though strategically crucial – is not a zero-sum game. Moscow has spelled out that it must have a say when Syria’s fate is being decided. But, unlike Iran, Russia has a greater freedom to strike a deal with Washington. Kremlin still hopes that the new Administration will be more lenient to accept its vision for the region.

In contrast, Iran continues to be antagonized by the West with little likelihood of improvement any time soon. In its turn, Tehran has not toned down its anti-American rhetoric and even threatens the US warships in the Strait of Hormuz.

America has a weak hand in Syria, and Iran – along with Russia – is filling the vacuum.

Regardless what the outcome of Russian-American relations will be, the Islamic Republic will not back off. It will continue its deployments to Iraq and Syria. There is much at stake for Tehran and the leadership understands it. It is still uncertain what president Trump’s ultimate Middle East policy will be, but for now America has a weak hand in Syria, and Iran – along with Russia – is filling the vacuum. In terms of Iraq, the regime will continue to forge a closer alliance with local Shia populations and back Iraqi troops in major military operations. Sure enough, Shia militias will carry Tehran’s orders and facilitate Iran’s meddling in Iraq’s internal affairs.

Tehran’s regional assertiveness is not a hyperbole and the Middle East may soon have a new established hegemon. Iranian foreign policy is greatly influenced by IRGC’s leadership with broad regional aspirations. Emboldened by the neutralization of Iraq as a rival, the regime has used both diplomatic and military measures to inhibit the emergence of a new regional geopolitical foe. In its pursuit to influence Iraq’s internal affairs, the regime has mobilized the country’s Shia population to boost its soft power and combat ISIS. While treating Iraq as a high priority, Tehran has kept Syria on its radar. Losing Syria is not an option for the regime given the geopolitical interests that are at stake. The IRGC values Syria’s role as a buffer zone against Israel and the fall of Assad’s regime may hinder Tehran’s regional ambitions. In the absence of reliable partners, Tehran will continue enhancing its military might to guarantee IRGC’s role in shaping the political structures of the neighboring states.                                                 

References

[1] Greg Bruno. “Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.” Council on Foreign Relations. Council on Foreign Relations, n.d. Web. 10 Feb. 2017. <http://www.cfr.org/iran/irans-revolutionary-guards/p14324>.

[2] Alex Vatanka. The Challenge of the IRGC Model in the Middle East to the United States. Quantico: Middle East Studies, 2017. Print.

[3] Farzin Nadimi. “Iran Appoints Seasoned Qods Force Operative as Ambassador to Iraq.”Iran Appoints Seasoned Qods Force Operative as Ambassador to Iraq – The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. N.p., 17 Jan. 2017. Web. 10 Feb. 2017. <http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/iran-appoints-seasoned-qods-force-operative-as-ambassador-to-iraq>.

[4] Paul McLeary. “Iraq and Iran Deepen Ties, Sign a Pact.” Defense News. N.p., 30 Dec. 2014. Web. 10 Feb. 2017. <http://www.defensenews.com/story/defense/policy-budget/warfare/2014/12/30/iraq-iran-isil/21051369/>.

[5] Rebecca Collard. “The Enemy of My Enemy: Iran Arms Kurds in Fight Against ISIS.” Times. N.p., 27 Aug. 2014. Web. 12 Feb. 2017. <http://time.com/3196580/iran-kurds-isis-erbil-iraq/>.

[6] Ahmad, Majidyar. “Senior Quds Force Official Admits Iran’s Military Role in Iraq and Syria  .” Middle East Institute. N.p., 1 Feb. 2017. Web. 12 Feb. 2017. <http://www.mei.edu/content/io/senior-quds-force-official-hails-iran-s-military-role-iraq-and-syria>.

Image source: Kremlin.ru

About the Author 

Erik Khzmalyan currently pursues M.A. in Statecraft and International Affairs at the Institute of World Politics. His research interests include Middle East Politics, American Foreign Policy, and Political Philosophy.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ERA Institute.

This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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