TSG IntelBrief: Iran’s Regional Position Strengthening
September 6, 2017
Bottom Line Up Front:
• Battlefield successes by Iran’s allies and misguided actions by its adversaries are boosting Tehran’s regional influence significantly.
• Sanctions relief provided by the 2015 multilateral nuclear deal hasn’t played a role in Iran’s improved position
• Strategic mistakes by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies have created opportunities for Iran to expand its regional reach, particularly in Yemen and the Gulf itself
• Hezbollah, Iran’s main regional ally, now operates throughout the region and can threaten Israel, Iran’s main adversary, on several fronts.
When Iran signed a landmark multilateral nuclear agreement in July 2015, many predicted the sanctions relief in the deal would equip Iran with financial resources to expand its influence throughout the Middle East. Others argued the deal would encourage Iran to exercise restraint so as to not jeopardize the agreement and the sanctions relief it brought. None of these forecasts have borne out. Iran has not exercised restraint and has expanded its regional strategic position significantly – not because Tehran has more financial resources to apply, but because conflicts in the region have offered Iran ample opportunities to intervene.
Iran’s strategic position has improved to the point where Israel, Tehran’s main regional adversary, has had to urge Iran’s ally, Russia, to restrain Iranian influence in Syria. Thanks to Russia’s intervention in Syria in 2015, Iran and its main proxy, Lebanese Hezbollah, have achieved a strategic victory by shoring up the regime of President Bashar al-Assad against a determined rebellion supported by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. As a result, Hezbollah and, by extension, Iran, now threaten Israel’s security from the Lebanon border and the Syria border as well.
Elsewhere in Syria, pro-Assad forces backed by Hezbollah and Iran have advanced eastward, where they could potentially link up with Iraqi Shi’a militias supported by Tehran. With the so-called Islamic State’s presence in western Syrian reduced, Iran is in position to establish a secure land route through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. Iran’s enhanced influence in the region has seen Turkey receive its first top-level Iranian military delegation since the 1979 revolution toppled the Shah.
None of these Iranian successes have come as a result of sanctions relief. Rather, Iran has taken advantage of precipitous and misguided actions by its Saudi-led Sunni Arab adversaries; including the war in Yemen against Iran-backed Houthi rebels and the land, sea and air isolation imposed on Qatar by Riyadh and close allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (G.C.C.) The war has made the Saudi-led coalition appear militarily ineffective and inhumane; while the attempt to isolate Qatar has brought it closer to Iran and threatened to split the G.C.C. Oman has also grown closer to Tehran, while in Bahrain Saudi support for Sunni hardliners contributes to a political stalemate that’s seen violent underground Shi’a factions turn to Tehran for support. Saudi pressure on Qatar also saw Hamas restore relations with Tehran that were downgraded in 2012, after Tehran’s support for the Assad regime clashed with Hamas support for the rebels. Outside the Gulf, Saudi failures have also empowered Turkey, in its efforts to expand its influence in the G.C.C. and throughout the region.
It is likely Iran’s regional strategic position will continue to strengthen with further battlefield gains by its own forces, allies and proxies. As for Iran’s regional adversaries, there’s little indication they will adopt more successful approaches to managing tangled regional conflicts.
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