Iran in the Post-ISIS Era: Aims, Opportunities and Challenges – Iran’s Strategic Goals by The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center At the Israeli Intelligence Heritage and Commemoration Center

The “Islamic State” in Iraq and Syria is undergoing a process of disintegration and ISIS will return to its “natural state” of a jihadist terror organization, not a “state” with territorial borders. The defeats experienced by ISIS in Iraq and Syria, central among them the loss of Mosul, the battle in Raqqa and the advances of Syrian forces in Deir Ezzor, create new opportunities for Iran to increase its influence in Syria, Iraq and the entire Middle East.

  • Iran, which previously displayed dexterity in exploiting every opportunity to enhance its standing as a regional power, wishes to capitalize on the vacuum created in Syria and Iraq by ISIS’ defeat, to advance its ambitions in the region and play a central role in shaping the post-ISIS Middle East. Iran’s actions in Syria and Iraq are part of a comprehensive Iranian strategy of striving for regional hegemony. Iran wishes to increase its influence over states and organizations in the region, while preventing forces under Western and American patronage from taking root in Syria, Iraq or any other country. Iran’s regional meddling is intended not only to implement its ideology but mainly to realize Iranian national interests, which are perceived by Tehran as vital.
  • In its current policy in Syria and Iraq, Iran wishes to further several central goals:
    • Securing and shaping the Syrian regime: Preserving the regime of President Assad, assisting its stabilization and increasing Iranian influence over it are vital goals for Iran. This policy stems from the Syrian regime’s role as a strategic ally of Iran in the Arab world, and due to possible negative ramifications of Assad’s downfall on Lebanese Hezbollah, which relies on the crucial Syrian logistical hub for transfers of Iranian assistance to it. In addition, Syria’s location at the heart of the Arab world is perceived as an important geo-political center from which Iran could, in the future, conduct a subversive policy to advance its regional hegemony.
    • Reinforcing a sphere of Iranian-Shi’ite influence, stretching from Iran through Iraq to Syria and Lebanon and the Mediterranean. In this sphere of influence, Iran can create a land corridor from Iran to Syria and to Lebanon. Such a corridor would provide Iran with another route for transferring forces, weapons and equipment to Syria and Lebanon. This in addition to the aerial route, which Iran frequently uses now, and the maritime route, which Iran has utilized several times in the past. It appears that Iran also wishes to obtain access to the Mediterranean, and gain a long-term military foothold in Syria (although senior Iranian officials have denied such intentions).
    • Bolstering the pressure mechanisms and escalating the threat posed to Israel, while creating a state of deterrence. This is mainly by augmenting the military capabilities of Hezbollah, developing the abilities of Hezbollah to manufacture weapons, and establishing local terror networks in the Golan Heights, with the aim of creating a new front for challenging Israel. It appears to us that according to Iran’s view, the networks forged in the Golan Heights will be made up of Hezbollah operatives, members of Shi’ite militias supported by Iran and local actors from the region.[1]
    • Maintaining Iraq’s territorial integrity, with a government dominated by the Shia and allied and under the influence of Iran. To promote this political goal, Iran fosters Shi’ite militias in Iraq that operate under its influence (“the Popular Mobilization Committee”, PMC), allowing Iran to advance its aims inside Iraq through these militias.
    • Dislodging the United States from the region. The U.S. is perceived by Iran as a major threat to its national security and vital interests. The first step to realizing this goal is by diminishing American influence in Syria and Iraq in the phase following the capture of Mosul and Raqqa, and subsequently, Iran aims to blunt American influence in other countries across the Middle East.
    • Increasing Iran’s political, economic, religious and cultural influence in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. This is while exploiting the weakness of the central governments in those countries and the opportunities found in the process of rebuilding the economies and infrastructure in Syria and Iraq, which have been devastated by the wars raging in those countries over the past few years. An important tool for the accomplishment of this goal are the Shi’ite communities residing in those countries (and in Syria, the Alawite community), which are experiencing sectarian tensions with the neighboring Sunni Muslim communities.
  • To realize its strategic goals, Iran continues to invest most of its efforts in Syria in stabilizing the rule of the Assad regime and expanding the territories under its control. Despite the significant gains of Assad regime forces, a decisive victory is yet to be achieved, and the military effort continues to pose a major challenge to Iran and the IRGC, and take a heavy toll on its manpower and that of its clients.
  • Iran intends to utilize the forces operating under the command of the IRGC to establish itself in areas from which the Syrian rebels and ISIS have been expelled, with the aim of creating a sphere of influence stretching from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon and the Mediterranean. Ground lines of control from east to west would allow direct Iranian access to its allies in Syria and Lebanon. The Iranian effort to establish this corridor is being realized by the advancement of forces supportive of the Assad regime, including Hezbollah and Shi’ite militias operating under IRGC patronage (the PMC), to central crossing points on the Iraq-Syria border. Iran encourages the organizations under its tutelage in Iraq and in Syria to operate near the Iraqi-Syrian border.
Obstacles Hindering the Realization of Iran’s Interests
  • Iran faces several fundamental obstacles when attempting to establish itself as a powerful player in the Arab realm of the Middle East. First, as a country with a Persian majority, it is perceived in the Arab world, and even among its allies, as a foreign actor that at time conducts itself in a haughty and even racist manner toward its Arab neighbors. Second, the Shi’ite Iran is struggling to realize regional hegemony in a sphere that is mostly Sunni Muslim. The use of local proxy organizations allows Iran to camouflage its direct involvement in this arena, but there are also inherent problems in a strategy that relies on operating proxies, which at times have their own interests and do now follow the Iranian dictate to the letter.
  • The creation of an Iranian sphere of influence in western Iraq and eastern Syria and establishment of a land corridor from Iran in the direction of the Mediterranean is especially challenging for Iran. The government of Iraq (with American encouragement) may hinder the transfer of weapons through this route. In addition, parts of this route are controlled by forces opposed to Iranian meddling, such as the Kurdish militias supported by the United States or the Sunni communities residing in western and central Iraq. After losing Mosul, ISIS will likely change its combat patterns and revert to guerrilla tactics and terrorism, and may obstruct the movement of vehicles along the land corridor.
  • The actions of the superpowers and other governments in the region, and especially those of Russia, the United States and Turkey, also undercut Iran’s ability to realize its aim of regional hegemony and frustrate its hope of forging eastern Syria and western Iraq as parts of its sphere of influence. In Syria, Russia has become the dominant player, and Iran has had to settle for a secondary role in the military and political developments that have occurred over the past year (which creates tensions in the relationship between Iran and Russia). Another actor competing with Iran in Syria (and beyond) is Turkey, which wishes to play a central role in combatting ISIS and shaping the political deals concerning Syria’s future. In addition, it is likely that Sunni Turkey will view increasing Shi’ite influence spearheaded by Iran as harmful to its interests.
  • Iran’s efforts to gain influence in this arena may lead to greater strife with the United States, especially during the Trump presidency. Iran eyes with concern American activity against Syrian regime forces and sees it as a new phase in the battle to shape Syria in the day after ISIS and as an “American plot,” which aims to curtail Iranian influence. In addition, the Iranian presence in Syria increases the likelihood of friction with Israel and may lead to an escalation between the two countries at a timing that is not suitable for Iran.
  • Inside Iran, Iranian involvement in Syria too poses a challenge. The prolonged military operations in Syria continue to exact a heavy human toll and financial cost from Iran and its proxies, which at time arouse internal criticism, and fan the flames of conflict with ISIS (as was evident in the multi-pronged terrorist attack carried out by the organization in Tehran on June 7, 2017). In addition, Iran’s drive for hegemony in the Middle East may require it to increase its “investments” in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and other conflict arenas, which may further inflame domestic criticism.
The Iraqi Facet
  • ISIS’ waning power creates new opportunities for Iran to expand its influence in Iraq. Unlike in Syria, Iran’s direct military presence in Iraq is extremely limited and is primarily based on the Iraqi Shi’ite militias (“the Popular Mobilization Committee”, PMC), most of which operate under direct or indirect patronage of the IRGC. These militias play an important role in the domestic arena in Iraq, which may even increase following the end of the campaign against ISIS, when they demand their place in the new political order in Iraq. It appears that most of the militias are loyal to Iran and the ability of the central government in Baghdad to impose its will on them is in doubt.
  • Iran sees its involvement in Iraq as an essential mean for maintaining its influence in the country and preventing American presence and influence there, which are perceived by Iran as a threat to its national interests. According to Tehran, ISIS’ enfeeblement may accelerate the confrontation against the United States over power in Iraq. Iran strives to neutralize American influence in Iraq, which has increased during the campaign against ISIS, and especially during the battle for Mosul.
  • As with its policy in Syria, Iran is moving to increase its influence in Iraq in the economic, cultural and religious spheres as well. Iran invests great efforts in augmenting the volume of trade with Iraq, it has taken over several oil fields in the border region with Iraq, and Iran may assist in rebuilding the areas captured from ISIS. Iran is also pursuing efforts to increase its religious influence in the Iraqi cities considered holy by the Shi’ite community.
  • Iranian assistance provided a significant contribution to stymieing ISIS but also resulted in growing criticism inside Iraq against Iran’s interference in Iraq’s domestic affairs. This criticism reflects the complexity of the Shi’ite political arena in Iraq, which encompasses a multitude of differing and even opposing views regarding Iran’s involvement in the country. Over the past two years, the Shi’ite cleric and politician, Muqtada al-Sadr, has led the opposition to Iran’s involvement in Iraq. Al-Sadr was considered a protégé of Iran, but over the past few years, has drifted away from the Iranians and began publicly criticizing Iran’s meddling in Iraq. Iran is troubled by his growing activism, and especially his burgeoning ties with Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main regional rival.
  • Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, who was appointed to his position in the summer of 2014 replacing the pro-Iranian Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, has also adopted an independent posture vis-à-vis Iran. At the heart of al-Abadi’s policy is the desire to avoid becoming an “Iranian puppet.” Iraq also has an underlying interest to continue receiving American support and to maintain positive relations with the Sunni Arab states, chief among them Saudi Arabia. The entry of Turkey as another player in the Iraqi scene is also perceived as a threat by Iran, which is troubled by Turkey’s aim of cementing its hold over northern Iraq.
  • Another challenge Iran is facing comes from the Kurds in northern Iraq. Iran is troubled by the transformation of the Kurdistan region in Iraq into a de-facto independent state. According to Tehran’s view, this may jeopardize Iraq’s territorial integrity, harm Iran’s efforts to secure its grip over Iraq and embolden separatist aspirations among the Kurdish minority in Iran. Iran’s concern is clearly evident in its public opposition to raising of the Kurdistan flag in the city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq and its efforts to prevent the holding of the independence referendum in the Kurdish region.

In sum, ISIS’ decline in Syria and Iraq and its transformation from an “Islamic State” to a terrorist and guerilla organization creates a window of opportunity for Iran to realize its regional goals and expand its influence. The first priorities are Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, over which Iran already has a strong grip. Nevertheless, Iran’s ability to cement its influence is constrained by fundamental characteristic of the Middle Eastern system, chief among them the demographic composition of the region and the competing influence of other regional and international players. Iran’s ability to increase its influence in the region depends not only on its intensions and desires, but also on the policies of the rest of the state and non-state actors, international and local, operating in the region, and their decisions whether to facilitate Iran’s ambitions or challenge its efforts to establish a sphere of influence under Iranian dominance.