Publications

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Iran began its military involvement in Syria in 2011, at the outbreak of the civil war. Tehran’s immediate objective was to defeat the Syrian opposition militarily to save Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The maintenance of the Shia-Alawi-dominated regime in Damascus was key to the Islamic Republic’s long-term regional strategy, the creation of a contiguous Shia arc of influence in the region, linking Iran through Iraq to Syria and Lebanon. The Syrian theater also witnessed changes to Iran's traditional use of proxies, militias, and plausible deniability.

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Over the past year, many have questioned the extent to which the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) are an arm of the Lebanese state or beholden to Hezbollah. Pointing to the LAF’s complicated relationship with Hezbollah, congressional and other voices in the United States have criticized US security assistance to Lebanon and threatened to withhold assistance. Yet, over the past decade, the military capabilities of the LAF have improved significantly, and the group has effectively defended Lebanon’s borders, including against ISIS. In “The United States–Lebanese Armed Forces Partnership: Challenges, Risks, and Rewards”, Atlantic Council nonresident senior fellow Nicholas Blanford assesses LAF capabilities, the trajectory of the LAF over the past decade, and what leverage the United States has achieved through its investment in the LAF, in particular relative to Hezbollah, Iran, and other actors.

 

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Geographic proximity and shared religion, specifically Shia Islam, give Iran deep influence in Iraq, as shown in a new Atlantic Council issue brief entitled  “Iran in Iraq,” by American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Kenneth M. Pollack. Despite advantages in geography and demography, Pollack argues that Iranian influence in Iraq is not insurmountable. The United States should therefore seek to implement policies that strengthen Iraq's government and unify its people in order to keep Iran at bay. 

 

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Ambassador John Herbst, director of the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center, writes in a new issue brief entitled "Partners or Competitors? The Future of the Iran-Russia Power Tandem in the Middle East" that Russia and Iran are currently drawn into partnership over common regional interests and anti-American policies and sentiments despite centuries of historical rivalry. While their strategic partnership might not survive long-term shifts in either country’s politics, it remains inimical to US interests in the short-term.

 

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Due to proximity and historical ties, no other country is as well placed as Iran to play a dominant role in Afghan society, as Middle East Institute senior fellow Alex Vatanka shows in his new paper, "Iran's Bottom Line in Afghanistan."

 

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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has managed to hold onto power through the civil war and has the determined support of Iran to thank for his position. In “Tehran Stands Atop the Syria-Iran Alliance,” author Danielle Pletka examines ties between Syria and Iran, the power relationship that has emerged, and the legacy it leaves for the next Syrian ruler.

 

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In “Iran's Fingerprints in Yemen: Real or Imagined?”, Dr. Elisabeth Kendall, nonresident senior fellow with the Brent Scowcroft Center's Middle East Peace and Security Initiative and senior research fellow in Arabic and Islamic studies at Pembroke College at Oxford University, investigates the true extent of Iran's presence in Yemen, including both military and cultural aspects.

 

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In their new paper, entitled US Strategy Options for Iran’s Regional Challenge, Kenneth M. Pollack, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and Bilal Y. Saab, senior fellow and director for defense and security at the Middle East Institute, present five alternative strategies that the United States could pursue to limit Iran’s destabilizing activities. After weighing the pros and cons of each option, they conclude that the most effective US course of action would be Pushback—an approach that would seek to measurably weaken Iran’s regional influence and eliminate its meddling in key states by bolstering US partners under pressure from Iran.

 

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Understanding what drives Iran’s regional policies is crucial to confronting its challenges. In her new paper, entitled "The Roots and Evolution of Iran’s Regional Strategy," Suzanne Maloney, deputy director of foreign policy and senior fellow for Middle East policy at the Brookings Institution, explores how the Islamic Republic operates throughout the Middle East, and the ideological and strategic underpinnings of its actions. The issue brief concludes that, in addition to core realpolitik, Iran’s policies are driven by its view of itself as an inheritor of the Persian empire’s legacy, Shia ideology, anti-imperialist beliefs, domestic politics, and paranoia for the regime’s security.

 

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Revolution Unveiled: A Closer Look at Iran’s Presence and Influence in the Middle East, by Phillip Smyth, Tim Michetti, and Owen Daniels, pieces together snapshots of Iran’s influence in the region using photographic analysis, geolocation, social media monitoring, and other methods. Through four case studies, this report systematically examines new or lesser-known methods Iran employs to project its influence beyond its borders. By using proxy Shia groups, ideology, arms provision, and transnational networks, Tehran destabilizes and strikes at regional adversaries to achieve its strategic and policy objectives.

 

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