TSG IntelBrief: Iran’s Strategic Expansion
March 26, 2015

Iran’s Strategic Expansion

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Bottom Line Up Front: 

• Outside of its own borders, Iran now has significant proxy presence and influence in four countries encompassing 1.1 million square kilometers and 82 million people, in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon

• It has done this by leveraging tactical decisions made by other countries into its own strategic expansion; from Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and now Yemen, Iran is taking advantage of the short-term actions of others in its long-term plan

• The complete collapse of the U.S.-aided Yemeni president and the associated counterterrorism and military support is just the latest example of measures intended to address immediate pressures, which ultimately benefit Iran—all while U.S. airstrikes support Iraqi and Iranian militias in Tikrit against the immediate threat of the Islamic State

• It’s not that Iranian leaders are all-knowing, masterful chess players but rather that the Middle East has for decades been a battlefield of ad hoc stability measures by numerous countries that have enabled Iran to steadily project power, to the extreme concern of countries such as Saudi Arabia, which has now launched airstrikes in Yemen.

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While U.S. warplanes conduct airstrikes in support of Iraqi security forces—that include Shi’a militias and Iranian advisors—fighting to take Tikrit back from the Islamic State, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries launch airstrikes against the Iranian-supported Houthi rebels in Yemen. On March 25, Houthi rebels and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh-supported military units took over Aden, Yemen, and forced beleaguered President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi to reportedly flee the country. These events in Yemen and Iraq are neither directly connected nor are they part of some masterful Iranian plan. But they are the latest examples of Iran’s leveraging the tactical decisions made by others across the region into Iran’s strategic advantage.

The numbers speak for themselves: Iran, whose 1.6 million square kilometers make it the 18th largest country and whose population of 81 million make it the 19th most populous country, now has significant proxy presence and influence far beyond its borders, in:

Yemen: with an area of 527,968 square km and a population of 26 million

Iraq: with an area of 438,317 square km and a population of 32 million

Syria: with an area of 185,180 square km and a population of 18 million

Lebanon: with an area of 10,400 square km and a population of 5.8 million.

In Yemen, Iran isn’t so much a puppet master as it is a strong supporter of the pro-Iranian Houthi rebels and a beneficiary of poor Yemeni governance and a regional focus on Yemen’s counterterrorism (CT) and sectarian issues over internal dynamics. For several years, the primary U.S. interest has been in countering the very real threat of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which it did by first supporting long-time President Saleh and then his successor, President Hadi, beefing up Yemen’s military capabilities, and using al-Annad air base north of Aden to conduct drone strikes against emerging AQAP threats. This tactical necessity, limited in scope, has turned into an Iranian strategic priority. The Houthi rebels (or the military units still loyal to Saleh) are now in control of most of the country and a great deal of U.S. military equipment that isn’t being used against AQAP, since the majority of Yemenis are less concerned about CT efforts than they are about poor governance and dire economics.

In Iraq, Iran again isn’t in control but it has significant and growing influence within a country with which it was at war just three decades ago. The rise of the Islamic State, in part a symptom of extreme sectarianism, has been a decade in the making. The group now presents an immediate and serious threat to Iraq that requires tactical decisions by the United States that might strategically benefit Iran as much as they benefit Iraq and regional security. The U.S. is now conducting airstrikes to support the Iraqi military effort to remove the Islamic State from Tikrit, a battle that has critical and highly visible Iranian support. The U.S. support might prove decisive but the credit will go to Iran and the Iraqi Shi’a militias. The tactical gain is significant and necessary but the strategic gain might go to Iran.

Likewise, in Syria, Iran has benefited from geopolitically complicated decisions about supporting or not supporting anti-Assad rebels among many different actors. Instead, Iran made the strategic calculation that supporting Assad was in Iran’s national interest and then consistently acted on that strategy. Using its Lebanese Hizballah proxy and direct participation by Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps personnel, Iran has helped the Assad regime survive. Iran’s influence in Lebanon is deep-seated, and was deepened by the needed short-term security actions taken by Israel in the 1980s and onward.

The very understandable tactics taken by various countries to address real near-term concerns have had the unintended result of furthering Iran’s strategic goal of projecting influence from the Gulf of Aden to the Straits of Hormuz. Iran’s nuclear ambitions have captured most of the attention but it might be its by-proxy territorial ambitions that create the most negative repercussions in a region that is dividing itself along sectarian lines.

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