EAST KURDISTAN (IRAN) –  Major Challenges Faced by Iran in the Regional Arena in 2018

Published: 18/02/2018  – Main Argument – Regional Challenges Facing Iran

The far-reaching political transformations that have occurred in recent years in the Arab world created new opportunities for Iran to increase its regional clout. Iran exploited the weakness of the Sunni Arab states as well as the regional turmoil and instability to promote its over-arching strategy that strives for regional hegemony. Additional factors contributed to the expansion of Iran’s sphere of influence: Washington’s policy, which eschewed active involvement in the region; Saudi-Arabia’s forcible policies, which often played into Iran’s hands; and the nuclear agreement, which provided Iran with a greater degree of freedom of action from the Western powers led by the United States.

  • In addition, the collapse of the Islamic State provided new opportunities for Iran to entrench its influence in Syria, Iraq and the Middle East as a whole. Iran, which has previously proven its ability to exploit every opportunity to improve its standing as a regional power, now wishes to utilize the vacuum created by the collapse of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq to further its ambitions in the region. Iran aims to play a central role in shaping Syria, Iraq and the Middle East in general in the post-Islamic State era.
  • However, at the dawn of 2018, it appears that the challenges and difficulties faced by Iran in its efforts to become a hegemonic player in the region are multiplying. Iran faces a number of structural limitations when attempting to entrench itself as a powerful actor in the Arab Middle East:
    • As a country with a Persian majority, Iran is perceived, even by its allies, as a foreign actor that often acts in a condescending manner toward its Arab neighbors.
    • The Shi’ite Iran struggles to achieve regional hegemony in a sphere that is mostly Sunni Muslim. In addition, Iran’s efforts to increase its regional clout are often met with difficulties even among the Shi’ite communities of the region, which are loyal first and foremost to their Arab identity.
    • The use of local proxies helps Iran to conceal its direct involvement in the region, but such a strategy of relying on proxies that have their own interests and are not wholly subservient to Iran’s dictates is also fraught with problems.
  • 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 Syria and Iraq as parts of its sphere of influence. In Syria, Russia has become the dominant player due to its military intervention in the civil war. Russia, at least currently, is not preventing Iran’s military entrenchment in Syria. However, Iran has had to settle for a secondary role in the military and political developments in Syria, which is a fertile ground for potential tensions in the future 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 settlement concerning Syria’s future.
  • Although these foundational limitations are not new, developments in the international, regional and internal Iranian arenas in recent months tighten the constraints under which Iran operates, and amplify the challenges Iran faces in its efforts to establish a regional sphere of influence.
The Syrian Arena
  • Several developments in Syria pose a growing challenge to Iran’s effort to establish long-term presence and political, military and economic influence:
    • The progress of negotiations for a political settlement in Syria is accentuating the disagreements between Iran and Russia over the nature of the future political deal and the long-term Iranian military presence in Syria. Statements made by Russian officials have made it clear that Russia realizes that the long-term presence of Iran and its proxies in Syria may increase tensions with Israel and hinder the negotiations process due to the resistance of the Syrian opposition and Sunni militias to a permanent Iranian presence in their country. Moscow’s commitment to Assad’s reign in the long run is also in doubt. Commentaries published in Iranian media outlets reflect Iran’s unease about Russia’s intention in the phase following the defeat of Assad’s opponents.
    • The commitment of President Assad to Iran appears limited. In recent months, several reports have been published that indicate that the Syrian president is not eager to grant Iran a permanent military foothold or to allow it to increase Iran’s role in his country’s economy, and he prefers Russia over Iran in his effort to regain control over Syria. Although Iranian officials are careful not to publicly express their disappointment at Assad’s conduct, who owes his survival to Iran, these Iranian sentiments can be gleaned in disapproving commentaries recently published by several Iranian media outlets.
    • The intention of the United States’ administration to maintain an American military force in north-eastern Syria as part of the new strategy announced by President Trump vis-à-vis Iran is raising great concerns in Tehran. Although it is still unclear how the U.S. administration intends to implement its policies toward Iran, the maintenance of an American military presence in Syria is perceived as a significant threat to Iran’s national security. The Iranians perceive this policy at intended to stymie their efforts to cement their influence in Syria. The strikes attributed to Israel on Iranian convoys attempting to transfer weaponry to Hezbollah, as well as bombings of Iranian bases in Syria and Syrian military installations, demonstrated the limitations on Iran’s freedom to operate in Syria.
    • The Turkish operation in Efrin, northern Syria (Operation “Olive Branch”) reflects Ankara’s intention to continue playing a central role in shaping the political and military reality in Syria, even if this entails ignoring Iranian interests.
The Iraqi Arena
  • In Iraq too, Iran is facing challenges in an effort to entrench its influence, mainly due to the unyielding efforts by the Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, to bolster the central government in Baghdad and rebuild Iraqi state institutions following the end of the campaign against the Islamic State. Over the past two years, al-Abadi adopted an independent line vis-à-vis Tehran and on several occasions expressed disapproval of its forceful meddling in the internal affairs of his country, and in particular the machinations of Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Qods Force of the IRGC.
  • General elections are set to be held in Iraq on May 2018. These elections will represent a significant political test for al-Abadi’s leadership. Although the outcome of the elections is unknown, it can be estimated at this stage that al-Abadi’s likelihood of forming the next government are quite high. The former Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who was previously considered to be Iran’s preferred candidate, will struggle to form a government, mainly due to his unpopularity among large swathes of the Iraqi public. Iran recognizes this reality and recently Qasem Soleimani worked to forge an agreement between the sitting prime minister and the Shi’ite militias supported by Iran to form a coalition for a joint electoral campaign. Soleimani’s efforts failed, and it is possible that this setback will further undermine his precarious position in the Iraqi political arena.
  • If al-Abadi is able to form the next government and chooses to continue to pursue an independent stance toward Iran, he could find support for this apprehensive approach regarding Iran’s role in Iraq in his political partner, the cleric and Shi’ite politician, Muqtada al-Sadr. al-Sadr is considered to be one of the fiercest critics of Iran’s meddling in his country. The religious establishment led by the senior Shi’ite cleric, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, a well-known opponent of the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist system implemented in Iran since the Islamic Revolution, is also apprehensive about Iran’s meddling in Iraq’s internal affairs.
  • One of the major challenges faced by al-Abadi following the elections will be proceeding with the integration of the Shi’ite militias into the Iraqi Army. Iran still enjoys the support of some of the Shi’ite militias. The ability of central government in Baghdad to enforce its will on them and to coerce them to disarm is in doubt. However, the capacity of the militias to serve as agents of Iranian influence depends on the results of the elections and the interplay between the various forces in the Iraqi political arena in general and the Shi’ite forces in particular, which adopt different and even contradictory approaches toward Iran.
The Internal Iranian Scene
  • While developments in the region pose new challenges for Iran, the internal debate in Iran about the necessity of investments beyond its borders is becoming increasingly acute. A manifestation of the growing public displeasure with the heavy financial toll Iran has paid for its military involvement in the region could be found in the wave of protests that swept across Iran in late December 2017 and early January 2018. Although this criticism holds only limited sway over decision-making processes in Tehran, senior Iranian officials are fully cognizant of it. This public opposition may further exacerbate the debate at the highest echelons of the Iranian regime, and in particular, between Supreme Leader Khamenei and President Rouhani, with regards to which national interests should be prioritized.
  • The growing internal criticism in Iran stems in part from the ongoing economic crisis. Despite some improvement in Iran’s macro-economic situation due to the nuclear agreement and removal of international sanctions, Iran’s economy continues to suffer from significant structural failures and many of Iran’s citizens are yet to reap the benefits of the nuclear accord. Several factors contribute to the sense of economic uncertainty in Iran, including the question marks regarding the future of the nuclear accord and the re-imposition of economic sanctions following the threats made by President Trump that he will not allow their continued suspension. If President Trump decides to re-impose American sanctions against Iran, the economic situation in the country may deteriorate even further.
Summary and Assessment
  • Ultimately, Iran is unlikely to halt its efforts to increase its regional influence, a goal that is perceived by Tehran as essential for realizing its national security posture. As part of this policy, Iran will continue, in our assessment, to play a pivotal role in shaping regional reality in the post-Islamic State era, and in particular in Syria and Iraq. An indication of this intention could be found in the launch of the unmanned aerial vehicle into Israeli territory on February 10, 2018, an action that is part of Iran’s ongoing efforts to establish a military foothold in Syria.
  • These efforts have not stopped despite the national, political and economic costs that Iran has paid for its regional involvement. In some cases, we can even point to an increase in Iran’s external support, for example to Hamas, whose relationship with Tehran improved significantly in 2017, following years of tensions due to the civil war in Syria and the position of the organization regarding Saudi-Arabia’s policies in Yemen.[1] The challenges in realizing its regional goals may even accelerate Iran’s attempts to find new opportunities to increase its clout and position as a regional power, for example by increasing the use of “soft power,” through economic, cultural and religious activity.

To summarize: Iran will continue to pursue its goal of entrenching its hold in Syria, Iraq and he Middle East as a whole. However, the international, regional and internal-Iranian developments in recent months, may, in our assessment, show that 2018 is bringing about not only opportunities but also significant challenges for Iran. These challenges pertain not only to Iran’s ability to continue and expand its regional influence, but also maintain the gains it has accrued in recent years in the long-run, largely due to the weakness of the Arab states and the instability characterizing the region.