MESOP NEWS INTEL ANALYSIS : Iran in the Post-ISIS Era: Aims, Opportunities & Challenges Updated Review


Main Argument – Iran’s Strategic Goals

In Syria and Iraq, the gradual collapse of the Islamic State, established in Iraq and Syria, has come to an end. Following the conclusion of this process of disintegration, ISIS has returned to its “natural state” of a jihadist terror organization, which does not need to administer or protect a state with territorial borders. The downfall of the Islamic State creates a security and political vacuum and engenders new opportunities for Iran to increase its influence in Syria, Iraq and the entire Middle East.[2]

  • 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’ collapse, 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 (“exporting the revolution”) 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.[3]
    • 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 downfall of the Islamic State, 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, the latest among them was the fall of the “Islamic State,” a decisive and final 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 (thus, for example, in the campaign to capture Albu Kamal, the last major stronghold of the Islamic State in Syria, several IRGC officers were killed , among them two senior officers with the rank of colonel).
  • 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, 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. We assess that today, organizations enjoying Iranian patronage have control or influence over large swathes of the border area.
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. ISIS will likely change its combat patterns and revert to guerrilla tactics and terrorism following the end of the campaign against it in Iraq, and may carry out hit-and-run attacks against Iranian vehicles moving along the land corridor (Iranian vehicles may be perceived as attractive targets for ISIS in its new incarnation).
  • 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, which at time arouse internal criticism. In addition, Iran’s drive for hegemony in the Middle East may require it to increase its “investments” in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and other arenas of contestation with the Sunni Arab states, headed by Saudi Arabia and with the United States. The expansion of Iranian investments in personnel and other resources in the various loca of conflict may re-ignite domestic criticism.
The Iraqi Facet
  • ISIS’ debilitating loses create 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), some 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 some of the militias are loyal to Iran and it appears that 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 the downfall of the Islamic State and the (temporary?) enfeeblement of 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 turning his country into an “Iranian satellite.” 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, although this challenge was significantly curtailed due to the failure of the Kurdish initiative to carry out a referendum on the de-facto independence of the Kurdish region. Iran is troubled by the transformation of the Kurdistan region in Iraq into a de-facto independent state. According to Tehran’s view, such a trend 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.

In sum, the downfall of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and ISIS’ transformation into 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, mostly though Shi’ite proxies. 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 players, regional (Saudi Arabia, which is coalescing an Arab Sunni coalition around it) and international. 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.


  • Below are five annexes dealing with the various aspects of Iran’s involvement in Syria, Iraq and the Middle East at large:
  • Annex A: The evolution of Iran’s involvement in Syria.
  • Annex B: The nature of the Iran’s current operation in Syria.
  • Annex C: The challenges to Iran’s involvement in Syria, Iraq and the Arab world at large.
  • Annex D: Iran’s involvement in Iraq.
  • Annex E: The Challenges to Iran’s involvement in Iraq.

[1] This document is an expansive update to an August 31, 2017 report by the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center: “Iran in the Post-ISIS Era: Aims, Opportunities and Challenges”.
[2] On the local, regional and international ramifications of the collapse of the Islamic State, see a publication of the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center from November 16, 2017: “The Collapse of the Islamic State: What Comes Next?”
[3] In the past, a Shi’ite Iraqi operative, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandes, who serves as the Deputy Commander of the Popular Mobilization Committee (PMC, an umbrella structure of Shia militias operating under Iranian patronage), stated that if Hassan Nasrallah asked to turn toward Israel if conflict erupts, the PMC will do so. In this context see our publication from July 20, 2017: “Iran’s interests and intent in Iraq and Syria reflected in statements by senior commanders of the Popular Mobilization Committee, the umbrella organization of the Shi’ite militias in Iraq handled by the Iranian Qods Force”.