Iran Middle East Politics & Diplomacy
IranSource April 10, 2020

Iran’s regional ambitions are not going anywhere

By Raz Zimmt

Speaking to a diplomat in Tehran, the Iranian ambassador to Baghdad reported on his activities among Iraqi Shia. This, he said, included a weekly visit to the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, offering bribes to clerics and encouraging them to visit the Iranian embassy and consulates in Iraq. The Iranian ambassador’s report may be seen as an indication of Tehran’s increased involvement in Iraq as part of the Islamic Republic’s efforts to grow its regional influence. However, this report obtained from the Israeli National Archives was from May 10, 1965. It was written by the Israeli representative in Tehran, Meir Ezri, following his meeting with the new Iranian ambassador to Baghdad, Mehdi Pirasteh.

Iran’s regional ambitions, as well as its nuclear program, did not begin with the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Moreover, the political turmoil in the Arab world since 2011 has only opened new opportunities for Iran to expand its influence in the region by taking advantage of Arab countries’ weaknesses. The collapse of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) as a territorial entity and the gains made by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad—with the help of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Russia—provided Tehran with further opportunities to expand its hold over Syria and Iraq.

And yet, every few months, we are told that Iran is losing its grip on the region. First, it was due to punitive sanctions imposed by the Trump administration, which “have hit terrorists hard” and significantly limited its “military adventurism in the region.” Next, it was because the Israeli Defense Forces have been successful in preventing Iran from entrenching itself in Syria. This was followed by recent demonstrations in Lebanon and Iraq, which have allegedly revealed that “Iran is losing the Middle East.” Then, the November 2019 protests occurred in Iran, which increased the hope of regime change. This was superseded by the assassination of Quds Force Qasem Soleimani in January, which was presented as a huge blow to Iran’s plans for regional domination. The latest supposed threat to Iran’s regional dominance is now the coronavirus, which appeared to be slowing down Iran’s malign activities across the Middle East.

Iran has certainly faced several fundamental obstacles while seeking to bolster its regional influence. Israel’s activities have been able to delay the pace of Iran’s military entrenchment in Syria, as well as Lebanese Hezbollah’s armament with precision-guided missiles. The presence of Russia, the United States, and Turkey also limit Iran’s ability to shape Syria and Iraq as part of its sphere of influence. Additionally, Iran’s expansive meddling in the internal affairs of Baghdad, Damascus, and Beirut has aroused growing political and public opposition in the Arab world. The continued investments Tehran is making beyond its borders, at the expense of addressing the hardship of its own citizens, has also led to further domestic criticism in Iran.

The COVID-19 crisis finds Iran in one of its most difficult times. The withdrawal of the US from the 2015 nuclear deal and the re-imposition of unilateral sanctions exacerbated already existing troubles, pushing Iran’s economy to an unprecedented crisis. The recent sharp drop in oil prices due to Russia and Saudi Arabia’s oil price war has further aggravated Iran’s economic difficulties. Soleimani’s death also dealt a serious blow to Iran’s ability to advance its strategic goals in the Middle East—in the short-term, at least.

Nevertheless, time and time again, Iran has proved that, despite its limitations and weaknesses, it manages to hold on and turn threats into opportunities that preserve not only the regime’s survival, but its regional influence, as well. Iran, certainly, knows how to play the regional game in comparison to other nearby players. Tehran has the patience to wait until its ambitions are fulfilled and is highly determined and pragmatic, knowing how to adapt its strategy to meet new challenges.

In fact, recent Iranian activity in Iraq—amid the growing escalation between US forces and pro-Iranian Shia militias and the political developments in Baghdad—may actually indicate that, following Soleimani’s death, Tehran is reassessing its missions and adjusting its modus operandi to the changing circumstances in a way that would allow it to realize its interests—such as forcing the US withdrawal of troops out of Iraq—with greater success.

On April 9, Iraqi Prime Minister-designate Adnan al-Zurfi announced his withdrawal from the role of forming a new government following stiff resistance from Iran-backed political parties accusing him of being an “American agent”. Iraqi President Barham Salih, consequently, named Mustafa al-Kazemi, the head of Iraq’s intelligence, as prime minister-designate. In the last few weeks, Iran has maintained its efforts to influence the process of new government formation in Iraq, in light of its concerns about the prospect of al-Zurfi succeeding in forming a new government.

Al-Kazemi is certainly not the one the Iranians would like to see as Iraq’s prime minister. But, when Tehran had to choose between him and al-Zurfi, the Iranians were able to unite the major political forces in Iraq against the politician perceived to be the most significant threat to their interests. This time, Iran’s efforts to successfully effect the political process in Iraq were not carried out by Qasem Soleimani. Instead, they were carried out by the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, who visited Baghdad last month and met with al-Kazemi, and by the new Quds Force commander, Esmail Ghaani, who visited Baghdad last week. Yes, the same Ghaani who, some claimed, would find it very difficult to fill Soleimani’s shoes.

What is true about Iran’s regional influence is also true about the stability of its regime and economy. Iran has certainly faced many challenges both at home and abroad, but, just as its regional influence is not declining so quickly, neither will the regime nor its economy be likely to collapse very soon. In fact, years of economic sanctions and the centralization of its economy, which is characterized by extensive involvement by government institutions and by the IRGC, have, somewhat, improved Iran’s ability to adapt to crises.

For many, it is frustrating and disappointing, but that is the situation—at least, for now. Anyone who continues to promote strategies based on the assumption that we are on the verge of a new Middle East without an Islamic Republic—which has, apparently, been “on the verge of collapse” for decades—and without Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—who has been “on the verge of death” for years—or without pro-Iranian militias in the region, will be forced to contend with reality again and again. Iran is a complex and sophisticated state with a long history and a variety of power centers. However, it is precisely for that reason that Iran requires sober and responsible analysis based on established assertions rather than on alarmist approaches—that ignore its weaknesses—or wishful thinking that exaggerates its vulnerabilities.

Dr. Raz Zimmt is a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) specializing in Iran. He is also a veteran Iran-watcher in the Israeli Defense Forces.

Image: Iraqi women gather at the scene where Iran's Quds Force top commander Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis were killed in a U.S. airstrike at Baghdad airport, Iraq February 13, 2020 (Reuters)