Iranian interventionism in a changing Middle East
Despite current events, many Arab governments are seeking to improve ties with Iran
The agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, earlier this year, to reestablish diplomatic ties marks a new era in Iranian involvement in Middle Eastern politics. It is part of regional phenomenon where governments are putting aside their differences after years of bitter rivalry and confrontation. Of all the regional actors, Iran and its proxies stand the most to gain from this realignment.
Indeed, many Arab governments are now seeking to improve their ties with Iran and have expressed interest in working with it on various issues. Iran, by contrast, has offered no meaningful concessions in its rapprochement with Arab governments. It continues to invest in its ballistic missile program and to deepen its influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen through its vast network of proxies which often serves to destabilize these countries.
However, Saudi Arabia (along with other Arab governments such Bahrain, Jordan and Egypt) now tacitly accept Iranian influence in the region. Iran also achieved other diplomatic victories in 2023 such as an exchange of prisoners with the US, deepening military cooperation with Russia as a result of the war in Ukraine, and being invited to join BRICS, which is regarded as an economic counterweight to the Western-led world. As a result, 2023 has proven so far to be a highpoint for Tehran and its successes have served as a vindication of its foreign policy despite the instability it has caused in its immediate region.
As for what next, an examination of the foundations and key tenets of Iran’s foreign policy is needed to understand its possible future(s). Ever since 1979, the main priority of Iranian foreign policy has been to ensure the survival of the regime against threats both at home and abroad. Over the years, the regime in Tehran faced various international challenges which it sought to confront through a projection of power in the near abroad. The end goal was to create a balance of power in the Middle East that would be favourable to the Iranian regime.
One crucial tool at Tehran’s disposal was to foster sectarianism in different countries and cultivate local sectarian actors that would eventually serve Iranian interests. Thus, the Iranian regime was able to skillfully exploit events such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, the War on Terror and the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 to spread its influence and bolster its status as a regional power. By 2011, Iran has achieved the goal of becoming a regional power only to be confronted by a new phenomenon that undermined its interests: the Arab uprisings that began in 2011 and influence all aspects of regional politics to this day.
While the Arab Spring was a regional phenomenon that involved different countries with different political systems, Iran’s proxies and allies found themselves challenged by different protest movements that called for reform and the end of political repression. The Syrian uprising is the most illustrative case of this, but it is also true for Iraq and Lebanon. The regime in Tehran, which presented itself as a champion of the region’s oppressed, calculated that its regional influence was threatened by the uprisings since they directly threatened actors closely aligned with Iran. Thus, Iran supported its regional allies and proxies in their repression of different uprisings in different countries.
In addition, there are domestic actors that benefit from Iran’s interventions in other countries, chief among them the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC). The IRGC tended to exploit its interventions abroad to enhance its position in Iranian politics vis a vis other domestic actors. The IRGC is also close to the Supreme leader Ali Khamenei and both have shaped Iranian foreign policy in accordance with their beliefs and interests. Although Iranian foreign policy in the Middle East drew criticism and continues to be controversial, Tehran was able to withstand various pressures, domestic and foreign, and maintain course.
The rapprochements that have been taking place in the Middle East in the past few years, however, did not address Iranian interventionism in the region. Arab governments are more preoccupied with domestic challenges which prompted them to reduce tensions with Iran and other countries such as Türkiye and Israel. Indeed, Iranian meddling and projection of power are no longer deemed to be threats to regional security that Arab governments once highlighted despite the fact that many of the domestic problems that many Arab countries face are consequences of Iranian interventionism in the region.
From Tehran’s perspective, this change represents a triumph in its efforts to create a regional balance of power that is beneficial to Iran. It also offers Iran more opportunities to deepen its involvement in the Arab countries that it is already active in. In Yemen, the Houthis engaged in negotiations with Saudi Arabia and many observers and commentators attributed this to the thawing of relations between Riyadh and Tehran. However, the internationally recognize government of Yemen (which is based in Aden) and other Yemeni actors such as the Sothern Transitional Council and the tribes of central Yemen were neither included or consulted in these negotiations. In addition, the Houthis still proclaim that they and only they are the sole and rightful rulers of Yemen. Recently, reports emerged of fighting between the Houthis and forces aligned with the Yemeni government in central Yemen. The authoritarianism of the Houthis, their desire to control all of Yemen, and their tendency to exclude other Yemeni actors have been driving the war in Yemen and it will continue to do so if these factors are not addressed. It is also unlikely that Iran will cut off ties with the Houthis.
In Iraq, the various armed groups that are backed by Tehran continue to see their influence in Iraqi politics increase. They have formed political parties and have recently formed a new government which will allow these proxies to plunder Iraq’s wealth and resources. This was already taking place and it is one of the reasons behind the protest movement that broke out in Iraq in 2019 and was ruthlessly suppressed by the Iraqi government with IRGC support. As a result of constant Iranian interference in Iraqi politics, many Iraqis have become more critical of Iran and its policies towards Iraq.
Iran has also been entrenching its presence in neighbouring Syria and both Tehran and the Assad regime have boasted of their deepening ties. In addition, Iran has been active in cultivating influence in Syria given the Assad regime’s weakness after years of conflict and Russia’s preoccupation with its war in Ukraine. Tehran will continue to intervene in Syria militarily because it occupies an important place in Iran’s strategy in the Middle East. However, this will further exacerbate the dire political and humanitarian situations in Syria given both the Assad regime’s large-scale repression and Iran’s commitment to ensure the regime’s survival against any threat. Iranian intervention in Syria is also a common grievance among Syrians of all stripes including in areas under Assad’s control and many see Iran as a foreign occupier that undermines Syria’s sovereignty.
Another country that is affected by the situation in Syria is neighbouring Lebanon. Iran’s chief Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, has gained significant influence in Lebanese politics through strategic political maneuvering domestically and its participation in the Syrian conflict. Recently however, Hezbollah and its Lebanese allies became entangled in a political deadlock with other Lebanese factions over Lebanon’s future president. The Hezbollah-led coalition have pushed for Sleiman Frangieh to become the next president which alarmed other political forces due to Frangieh’s ties to both Iran and the Assad regime. In parallel, Lebanon has been experiencing a severe economic crisis and many Lebanese blame the country’s political class in its entirety including Hezbollah for this calamity. This is one reason why, for instance, Hezbollah engaged in the repression of the protest movement that rocked the country in 2019-2020. The political status quo in Lebanon has benefitted Hezbollah thus far so it will continue to defend the Lebanese political system even if it causes further political socio-economic deterioration for the Lebanese people. All of this acceptable to Tehran as long as it continues to be influential in Lebanese politics.
Therefore, the improvement of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia is unlikely to resolve difficult political and military dynamics in the region due to vested Iranian interests in the countries that suffer from Iranian political and military interventions. The plight that these countries are experiencing are caused by domestic factors and Iran is further exacerbating them with its interventionism and geopolitical calculations. On the other hand, Iranian regional interventions have served to antagonize the populations in those countries and this animosity could jeopardize Iran’s interests and status as a regional power in the future.
Nevertheless, the agreement with Saudi Arabia signals to the regime in Tehran that it is in a position of strength in the Middle East and that it can continue to pursue its regional policies without serious pushback from other actors. For the foreseeable future, Iran will use its resources to repress its opponents in Yemen, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq to preserve its interests and maintain its regional hegemony. The resentment felt by these populations will undoubtedly increase as a result which in turn will serve as a motivation to resist Iranian interference. All of this will guarantee future instability and perpetuate current conflicts in the region.
Rather than placing hopes for regional stability on the improvement of ties between the Iranian regime and its Arab counterparts, international efforts must be directed at resolving the political, security and socio-economic problems within Yemen, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. It will also require the International Community in parallel to thwart Iranian adventurism and treat it as a cause of regional instability that it is. Specifically, the international community has to make the Iranian regime’s regional policies more costly that overshadows the benefits. Otherwise, the Middle East will continue to suffer from conflict and repression.