Iran Debates Its Regional Role

University of Tehran Professor Nasser Hadian’s article Iran Debates Its Regional Role is a must-read for two main reasons: First, even though we know a bit more about Iran today because of a long negotiation with the P5+1 over the nuclear issue and extensive interaction among Iranian and Western diplomats, we still know very little due to its notoriously opaque political system. Therefore, greater insights into how Iran thinks and formulates foreign policy, especially from respected Iranian voices such as Hadian’s that have credible links to official circles inside Tehran, are particularly useful. Second, the article uniquely sheds light on an important debate that seems to be happening in Iran on the country’s regional role following the nuclear deal. This type of information can be valuable for the policies of the United States and those of regional partners. When officials and various strands of Iranian political society engage in a debate on Iran’s role and place in the region and the world, we should listen, and listen carefully.

While Hadian offers a thorough description of two competing strategic narratives in Iran – one advocating a more interventionist approach to the region’s main security and political challenges, and another advocating a minimalist approach– I, as many others probably do, still have questions about this debate.

When Hadian talks of “a significant debate within the Iranian policy elite,” I primarily look for two things: First, evidence of that debate (perhaps a set of statements, commentaries and some news reporting); second, a clear description of the players who are supposedly involved in that debate.

Neither of these factors, unfortunately, were evident in the article or the September 14 event in which I served as a co-panelist. Indeed, the more important details of this alleged debate are a mystery. Hadian informs us that there is a debate, but we are not told who is taking part in it and what views and opinions are at play. As I told my co-panelist during our talk, I can understand why he cannot divulge much and am aware of the limitations with which he has to deal, but it is still frustrating and disappointing for listeners to receive a very partial account of an issue so consequential.

This is hardly an academic exercise. I think it would be extremely beneficial for the public policy community in Washington and for several key players in the region including the Saudis to know precisely who inside Tehran is advocating what. What is the interplay, or perhaps tension, between the Iranian religious leadership, the diplomats, and the military elites, for example? Where does Rouhani and his team fall? How much influence do IRGC players have in regional policy? What is Ayatollah Khamenei’s role and contribution to this debate? Is it useful to describe the debate as a moderate vs. hardline debate? Is this debate taking place within the hardline camp? And finally, how relevant is this debate after all when it comes to regional security and stability? Will it really cause a shift in Iranian thinking and foreign policy? Or is this more of an internal affair, whereby Iran tries to organize its own house to come up with more effective policies to advance its own, narrow self-interests? Admittedly, this is too much to ask from Hadian in a short article, and a lot of these issues are complex and fluid, but even a partial treatment would have been helpful.

Putting the issue of Iranian intentions aside for a moment, what is equally, if not more important, is the issue of Iranian capabilities. Iran may choose to do X, Y, or Z, but like all other nations, its foreign policy portfolio is constrained, if not determined, by its own resources and capabilities.

To me, the issue of capability somehow seems to have been either neglected or worse, completely misdiagnosed in the US policy debate on Iran after the nuclear deal. You hear claims by members of Congress and many conservative commentators that Iran will control the region after the nuclear deal, that it will spread its negative influence throughout the region, and that nothing will stop it because it will have tons of money due to the easing of sanctions. And if we don’t do something about it, the argument goes, the Middle East will be lost, and major US strategic interests would be at risk.

It would be tragic not to inject some nuance into this conversation. Otherwise, ideological and sensationalist commentary would continue to dominate the US debate on Iran, which does great disservice to US national interests.

So how should one evaluate Iranian capabilities? I’ll start by saying the following: Never underestimate what Iran can do in the Middle East to advance its interests. Let me list a few examples:

  • Marine barracks bombing 1983.
  • Khobar Towers 1996.
  • Iran-Iraq War 1980-1988: Remember, Iran is a nation that survived a devastating 8-year war with Iraq, a country that was armed by the West and financed by wealthy Arab states. Saddam survived the war too, but after that war he was essentially on life support for the rest of his rule. Iran as a nation moved on to better things.
  • The IED’s in Iraq that killed dozens of US soldiers – 196 to be exact according to recently declassified Pentagon documents.
  • Hezbollah: the most lethal and disciplined non-state actor in the world.
  • Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad: not as effective as Hezbollah, but both represent the most serious security threats to Israel within Palestinian circles.

Additionally, consider the following: Lebanon won’t have a president unless Iran says so. Hezbollah has no meaningful future without Iran. Assad’s fate and Syria’s future are a function of Iranian design. Israel’s national security is a function, among others, of Iranian design. Overall, Gulf security is largely a function of Iranian design. Iran has succeeded in entangling Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in a vicious fight in Yemen.

Iran also has a dominant influence in Iraq. The only actor that can credibly challenge Iran in Iraq is ISIS. Finally, there cannot be a major war in the region without Iran and/or an Iranian surrogate being involved. So, whether we like it or not, other than the US, Iran has the biggest say over questions of war and peace in the Middle East.

Because of these accomplishments, no matter how you view them, Iran today has some significant political bargaining power in the Middle East. So if you’re sitting in Tehran, you must be feeling pretty good about your regional position.

These positives notwithstanding, I still think Iranian capabilities are a very mixed bag. The proxy wars in which Iran is involved have not succeeded in stabilizing any state and have failed to build peace. Iran may have succeeded in bleeding its main Saudi adversary in Yemen, but its support of the Houthis will neither reconstruct Yemen nor help it achieve a political solution. Iran may also have succeeded in protecting Assad in Syria, but at the expense of heavy casualties for Hezbollah, alienating the entire Sunni world, and possibly causing military overstretch for the IRGC.

On Iraq, whoever assumed that it is okay to give Quds Force chief Qassem Suleimani a free hand in Iraqi politics is clearly wrong. The complaints on his speech and performance by some important people including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most senior Shia cleric, are piling up. Rumor has it that Sistani was so frustrated with Suleimani’s designs in Iraq, the Economist reports, that he fired a private letter to his Iranian counterpart, Ayatollah Khamenei, complaining about the Iranian commander’s handling of Iraq’s Sunnis, putting too much pressure on them and completely alienating them. No wonder why Mohsen Rezaei, the former head of the IRGC is back in action, maybe to lend a helping hand to Suleimani, or maybe to check and keep an eye on him.

The price of awakening Gulf and Arab nationalism can be high. Anti-Iranianism is flourishing throughout the Sunni world. Because of their involvement with Yemen, some Gulf States are getting a crash course in modern warfare. That’s not good news for Iran.

With all the talk about Iran’s prowess in asymmetric warfare, the country’s conventional capabilities are really very modest. You can forget about the Iranian air force, it’s irrelevant in any military scenario and clearly not a favorite in any dog fight with Gulf fighter jets. Iran has some valuable experience in land warfare due to the 8-year Iran-Iraq war, but territorial conquest is not something we should be worried about when we think of the Iranian threat. Iran’s missile arsenal is without a doubt impressive, but it’s not accurate, reliable or as lethal as we think it is. Moreover, Iran’s adversaries are not defenseless, they field some of the world’s most powerful missile defense systems, and in recent years they have made some progress at integrating those systems. So in short, yes, Iran is good at asymmetric warfare, and it will further invest in that domain due to a massive conventional imbalance in the Gulf region, but the most it can do, be it on land or at sea, is create problems, it can’t win wars. Let’s put to rest any notion of Iran winning a war to “close the Strait of Hormuz.”

On regional stability, which is one of the central topics in Hadian’s article, it is obvious that Iran and its Arab Gulf neighbors do not agree on what it means and how to achieve it. It’s hard to ignore or dispute the evidence against Iran’s claim that all it wants to do is “stabilize its neighbors” and adopt a defensive posture. For a start, I’ve never heard of a nation, at least in recent modern history, publically advocating an offensive strategy to pursue its interests. So to hear that Iran is essentially “misunderstood” in its largely defensive intentions and responsible conduct of foreign policy is not serious.

When Iran lends its full support to President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, a man who has singlehandedly broken the country, destabilized neighbors, and caused human tragedies of catastrophic proportions on a regional and international level, that doesn’t contribute to stability. When Iran plants terrorist cells and commits terrorist acts in Bahrain and Kuwait, that doesn’t contribute to stability. The jury is still out on Iran’s actions in Iraq: on the one hand, they are fighting ISIS, which is worth some credit, but the question remains: does the end justify the means? When Iran recruits Shi’ite militias to fight ISIS and suffocates the country’s Sunnis, that exacerbates sectarianism, which in turn ensures ISIS’s survival. Finally, when Iran provides military assistance to a militia in Yemen that has revolted against an elected and legitimate president, that does not contribute to stability. The list goes on.

So this is not a theoretical conversation – the record of negative activities by Iran speaks for itself. Iran may want stability, but the way it is trying to pursue it in several theaters is counterproductive.

In closing, it matters less what Iran’s intentions are when it comes to assessing the country’s regional role after a nuclear deal. Actions speak louder than words. Iranian capabilities, while not grossly inferior or inadequate, do not match the rhetoric coming out of Washington and the Gulf States that we are about to witness the rise of a regional hegemon that is bent on conquest and domination.

There may be a debate inside Iran on the country’s regional role, but an equally important debate should be taking place between Iran and its Gulf neighbors, because the disconnect on what regional stability means, and how best to achieve it, seems quite large.

Bilal Y. Saab is Senior Fellow for Middle East Security at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.